Closing the doors to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, 115 red-robed and capped Cardinals met to pick ailing 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, after he unexpectedly resigned Feb. 11 citing health reasons—the first Pope to bail out in 600 years. Steeped in tradition, the Vatican began its Papal Conclave to pick the next Pope, hopefully to clean up a torrent of scandals involving corruption and sex, exposing the Church’s ugly underbelly, something long-denied but shaking the Vatican’s foundation. Representing 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, the Vatican sets policy, long overdue from Vatican II [1962-1962] where the Holy See reaffirmed its time-honored traditions of birth control and celibacy. Swirling around Benedict’s resignation was a 300-page secretive report about homosexual shenanigans among some of the Vatican’s senior hierarchy, though Benedict was not named.
When the Cardinals pick the next Pope, they should consider the Church’s need for reform, long overdue, promoting the types of sex scandals that have driven parts of the Church to near bankruptcy. Britain’s highest ranking Catholic official, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, said Feb. 23, after confessing his own sexual indiscretions, he thought the new Pope should change the Church’s celibacy rule. Prepared by Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, Slovak Cardinal Jozef Tomko and Cardinal Salvatore De Georgi of Palermo, the scandalous report involved homosexual prostitution with senior members of the Vatican. To whatever extent the secretive report weighed on Benedict’s decision to step down is anyone’s guess. “I know nothing of the content of the report but whatever it contains, it is clear that significant reforms are needed in the Vatican bureaucracy,” said Australian Cardinal George Pell.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, appealed the Conclave for unity, after Benedict’s resignation rocked the Vatican to its core. “Each of us is therefore called to cooperate with the Successor of Peter, the visible foundation of such ecclesian unity,” said Sodano, calling on the next Pope to “tirelessly promote justice and peace.” At the top of the list to replace Benedict is 71-year-old Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan. Scola is seen as the most likely to usher Church reforms, including amending the celibacy vow, fingered for many Church scandals. “For one thing, Benedict’s resignation was most certainly as result of numerous factors, mainly revolving around the internal problems of the Vatican, of which sexual shenanigans were likely one—but hardly the only one, or even the principle one,” said veteran Vatican journalist David Gibson.
Also mentioned among the frontrunners for Pope, 63-year-old Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, a favorite among the Vatican’s conservatives, hoping to preserve the Church’s age-old traditions. Both 67-year-old Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and exuberant 62-year-old New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan are in the running but considered long-shots because of the Vatican’s need to solicit the faithful in more dominant Catholic countries. Whoever the Cardinals pick, they’ll be confronted with ongoing litigation over past or current sex scandals and calls for reform, including the ordination of women. “Let us pray for the cardinals who are to elect the Roman Pontiff,” read a prayer at the mass before the Conclave. “May the lord fill them with his Holy Spirit with understanding a good counsel, wisdom and discernment,” hoping to resolve the problem of whom best suits the job.
Many Catholics have been disillusioned from recent Church scandals and bad publicity. When Benedict resigned, it opened up a can of worms, especially in light of the Cardinals’ secret report alleging homosexual prostitution inside the Vatican. “It’s a moment of crisis for the church, so we have to show support to the new Pope,” said Veronica Herrera, a real estate agent from Mexico, wishing the Cardinals well. As the black smoke wafted atop the Sistine Chapel, well-wishers in St. Peter’s Square knew they were in for a drawn-out proceeding. With so much riding on picking the right Pope, the Cardinals can’t afford to rush to judgment. Picking a Pope, like any political body, is about choosing the right leader that can unify the Church’s many conflicting undercurrents. Benedict’s unusual decision to step down was more about his admission that he couldn’t fix the Church’s problems.
Given the swirling scandals confronting the Church, the new Pope must be ready to address the problems head-on, not rely on old traditions that no longer apply to a changing world. Milan’s Cardinal Scola fits all the bill needed to move the Church through its next phase, promising important reforms long overdue from Vatican II in the early ‘60s. With all the corruption and sex scandals plaguing the Church, it would be wise for the next Pope to heed calls of Britain’s Cardinal O’Brien to reconsider the celibacy vow, letting priests, like most other religions, marry. Considering ordaining female priests would also go a long way to help the Church catch up with changing times, but, more importantly, tap a valuable resource for Church leadership. More than ever, the Church needs a steady and respectful reformer to heal the many wounds in today’s world requiring real change.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin from national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.