The Once and Future Papacy

So far as we know, Pope Francis is in reasonably good health and will remain head of the Church for some time to come. A bad case of the flu earlier this year – which some feared was COVID-19, quite dangerous for an elderly man with only 1½ lungs – seems just to have marginally slowed him down.

But three books have recently appeared that – if only to get us off our obsessions with viruses, race, riots, toppling statues, and politics – deserve some attention: Russell Shaw’s Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity; Edward Pentin’s The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates; and George Weigel’s The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission. The great virtue of each of them is not to offer simple solutions or predictions. They seek more to understand the current situation and the role that the Church is going to have to play in a world that has, even more than usual, gone mad.

In a concise but rich treatment, Shaw reviews virtually the whole of twentieth-century papal history from St. Pius X through St. John Paul II.  The “crisis of modernity” in his title continues into post-modernity: “In the manner typical of this era of bloodshed and turmoil, modernity did not go quietly, but unquestionably it went. Now we live in a time of transition called ‘postmodern’ – a nondescript word that fills a gap pending the emergence of a term to capture the special character of this new age, whatever that may turn out to be.”

Eight popes – and one might add Leo XIII’s earlier Thomist revival and inauguration of modern Catholic social thought – tried various ways to deal with the crisis, indeed multiple crises, not only in the world but the Church as well. The results were mixed, to say the least; even popes with a clear grasp of the situation, and the courage and will to address it, have been unable to much alter the course of things: JPII’s role in the fall of Communism being the great exception. But Marxism has not gone away, even in the nations that defeated the Soviets, which reflects the deeper battles about the nature of the world and human life that still remain to be fought.

Shaw brings a calm and careful voice to the papal history – and the reader who wants easy solutions to what ails the Church and the world will not find it here. But there’s something more valuable: a reliable record of where several popes, in various ways, succeeded – and failed. Given the large historical questions we now face in postmodernity, that approach is more useful than what may seem more direct and reassuring.

Shaw quotes British historian Lord Macauley in an afterword “[The Catholic Church] saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all.” Doubtless true, particularly for a Catholic who believes that the gates of Hell shall not prevail, even if our current renewal may take a long time.

The Apostolic Palace

By contrast, Edward Pentin’s The Next Pope focuses on the immediate future. He offers nineteen substantial portraits of what could be called the more plausible candidates. And this is of no little value not only to lay Catholics and others interested in the papacy, but to the whole college of cardinals. Usually, the cardinals of the world get to know one another at various events in the Vatican, particularly consistories when new cardinals are made. Pope Francis has chosen not to summon the cardinals as a body since early 2014 – some say because of fears that they might combine to oppose him.

In any event, Pentin is a clear and useful guide. Some of the figures are on almost any list: Cardinals Tagle, Parolin, Bagnasco, and Ouellet; others are strong but unlikely – Burke, Mueller, Sarah; still others seem far-fetched – O’Malley, Ravasi, Turkson, and Zuppi.  Pentin draws on long experience in Rome and provides insights into the history and character of each person. But it’s always good to remember the old Roman saying that he who enters the conclave papabile (“pope-able”) exits a cardinal.

George Weigel is ambitious in his own relatively brief description of what will be needed in the next pope. There’s not the slightest hint of who might fulfill these requirements, which makes the analysis more rather than less relevant, whoever the next pope might turn out to be.

First and foremost for the next pope is personal holiness and the ability to show the world that its salvation and hope lie only in Jesus – the full Jesus, not only the “nice” Jesus that people, even some in the Church, have been emphasizing since the Enlightenment. Weigel also argues that the next pope will have to make it a central part of his papacy that the “form” of the Church is to be in perpetual “mission.”

This involves a renewed and redirected engagement by a pope who understands the Petrine ministry with bishops, priests, and laypeople, and who will reinvigorate the New Evangelization, Christian humanism, and the Church’s moral witness in world affairs. In the last category, Weigel rightly counsels the Vatican not to speak out on so many political issues, on which it has little expertise, a habit that diminishes its impact when there’s a public question on which the Church does have moral competence.

It’s good to have all spelled out, of course. The failure of the New Evangelization – mostly an attempt to re-evangelize formerly Christian nations – suggests, however, that a world where materialism and scientism dominate needs some radical and fundamental education effort, often within the Church itself now, in basic spiritual and moral truths before the big ideas will even get a hearing. Not an easy task given the nature of educational establishments.

But God matters, and He acts. Our long spiritual decline is preparing something in part unpredictable, but an inevitable rebirth that will be the mission not only of the next pope but several of his successors as well.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.