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As is to be expected when the Chair of Peter is vacated, encomiums for the departed pope are quickly replaced by speculation about the next. This is a game anyone can play, whether you’re Catholic or not. The only difference now is that the departing pope can read the speculations along with the rest of us.
As is also to be expected, at least since the dual conclaves of 1978, much of the speculation will follow the lines of secular politics, taking absolutely no account of the Catholic Church’s peculiar imperatives. By that, I mean that you’ll read a lot of silly talk about prospects for the Church changing its “policies” on various action items, as if a change in pope meant a change in doctrine. That there might be a reason for the Church to teach the same things in 2013 as it did in 1013 or AD 113 seems not to occur to certain people.
One thing that is different from eight years ago: various self-styled progressives have not only greeted the news of Benedict XVI’s renunciation with glee — almost a “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” attitude — but are almost certainly convinced that, with “God’s Rottweiler” out of the way, the Spirit of Vatican II will finally sweep away the last vestiges of the homophobic, patriarchal “old Church” and blow in a kind of “Catholic spring”. “The church has such influence worldwide that it would be great to see a Vatican III!” gushed Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, while Rainbow Sash opined, “The new Pope will have an opportunity like Pope John XXIII to open wide windows of the Church so that fresh ideas may fill the Church by calling for a new Ecumenical Council of the Church, Vatican III.”
Don’t make plans to attend Vatican III anytime soon … by which I mean, not in our lifetimes.
For one thing, the myth of Vatican II as the entry point for a “more progressive era” is about played out. I’m not saying nobody believes it anymore; I’m saying that its influence has been on the wane for at least a decade, if not longer. The parishes that are gaining the converts and producing the candidates for religious life are more orthodox and traditional. The “Nuns on the Bus” may be the media darlings, but the nuns on Oprah — the Dominican Sisters of Mary — are the ones with a real, viable future. The current crop of bishops may have a ways to go as leaders, but they’re not the accommodationist doormats chosen by Paul VI.
For another thing, the only cardinal electors who didn’t participate in the last conclave — the conclave that elected Benedict XVI — are cardinals that Benedict himself has chosen. Now, let’s think about this carefully: What are the odds that the guys who elected “God’s Rottweiler” to be Supreme Pontiff are going to turn around and elect a disciple of Hans Küng to succeed him?
Third, the Western (first) world no longer owns the Church. The bulk of the Church’s billion-plus members are in second- and third-world countries, where they don’t have the money or the resources to be self-indulgent heretics and schismatics. Gay marriage may be a cause célèbre in Europe and North America; in Africa and the Middle and Far East, they have more important issues to worry about … like keeping from being killed by their local jihadists. If anything, we’re mission territory for them. We Americans need to get over the idea that we can judge the sensus fidelium of the global Church from ABC News polls and Pew Center surveys of Yankee opinions — we’re just not all that pivotal in the life of the Church.
As a corollary to the third point, Number Four is that the rest of the Church doesn’t want “the progressive era”. Four-fifths of the world doesn’t give a rat’s patoot about the fact that women can’t be ordained priests, and sees “gay marriage” for the oxymoron it is. In Africa, abstinence-based programs work better than condoms and contraceptives in stopping the spread of HIV because they don’t have “culture factories” hell-bent on glorifying sexual stupidity.
George Weigel writes, “The twenty-first-century cultural air is toxic, anti-biblical, Christophobic. It teaches the soul-withering notion that to do things ‘my way’ is the summit of human aspiration and the very definition of maturity. And it regards those who hold firm to biblical religion and its moral teachings as idiots at best, irrational bigots at worst.” This is the legacy of Western “progressive” policies; small wonder the rest of the universal Church wants nothing to do with it.
In general, papal transitions are about shifts in tone, not substance. Radical change as it’s usually defined in secular circles — a more liberal position on abortion or gay marriage, for instance — is deeply improbable, no matter who takes over.Yet there are many areas where new directions are plausible. One could imagine a non-Western pope, for instance, or a pope more attuned to the argot of popular culture, or a pope less inclined to have secularism as his idée fixe [?], or a pope with a good head for business management who can finally implement a serious reform of the Vatican itself (or, at a minimum, to curtail the Vatican’s occasional genius for stepping on its own story).
In other words, there is plenty of room for authentic reform of the Church. But the future direction of the Church has already been set in motion, and it isn’t towards the materialist, libidinal gutter of the Progressive Church. Rather, it’s towards a newly energized, newly militant Evangelical Catholicism, ready to engage the world rather than conform to it. That is what Bl. John XXIII intended, and what Bl. John Paul and Benedict XVI have given us.
The progressives aren’t out in front. They’re being left behind.