The Atheist’s Guide to the Next Pope February 23, 2013

The Atheist’s Guide to the Next Pope

Following the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the world is watching to see who will become the next pope. With a wide range of papabili — an Italian noun with no exact English equivalent, best translated as “popeables” — getting plenty of press coverage, how do they stack up from a secular perspective?

Let’s take a look at the major contenders.

Timothy Cardinal Dolan: The Power Trip Pope

Archbishop of New York

Timothy Dolan is a clear representative of the ultra-orthodox wing of the Catholic Church in America. At age 62, he’d be a relatively young pope, and concerns about a “superpower pope” threaten to hold him back. At the same time, American Catholics are the Church’s largest donors, and Dolan has the ear of the president, giving him attractive political power. He’s also got star quality, with folksy mannerisms that can be either alluring and charismatic or inconsistent with the dignity of the papacy.

Freedom of Conscience: Lately this has been Dolan’s battle cry, but his definition of the term is utterly out of touch with reality. Take a look at his recent reaction to the hoops Obama is jumping through to make the ObamaCare mandate acceptable to Catholics’ “freedom of conscience” or his insistence on “conscience clauses” that will protect the jobs of people who refuse to provide services integral to their work — like pharmacists who refuse to fill certain prescriptions or adoption agencies refusing to work with gay and lesbian families. He certainly has no problem telling Catholics how to vote, mentioning no parties but forbidding them to cast ballots for any politician who opposes abortion bans or supports same-sex marriage.

Separation of Church and State: It would not be hyperbole to say that Dolan would be comfortable with a Christian theocracy. In 2009, he signed the Manhattan Declaration, which called on Christians to speak and act against laws that affront pro-life thinking, gay marriage, and his peculiar definition of “religious liberty.” It doesn’t overtly advocate breaking the law, but it could easily be read that way.

Attitude Toward Science: Science seems like it’s not of great interest to Cardinal Dolan. Even in his unceasing battle over contraception and abortion, he glosses over scientific aspects of the debate and focuses instead on theological arguments… which usually make his approach to logic and reason pretty self-evident.

Human Rights Record: It appears that the only human rights worth protecting are those of zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. (To quote George Carlin, “If you’re pre-born, you’re fine; if you’re pre-school, you’re fucked.”) Dolan’s handling of the sexual abuse of minors within the Church has been roundly criticized. Financial documents show that, as Archbishop of Milwaukee, he paid $20,000 bonuses to molester priests if they would volunteer for laicization (and leave the ministry). That diocese later applied for bankruptcy.

Overall Prognosis: Dolan’s said he wants to engage estranged Catholics and listen to those whom the Church has harmed, but it’s pretty clear he just wants to explain to them why they’re wrong; he’s not interested in other points of view. If he wins, expect fundamentalism from this “superpower pope.”

Marc Cardinal Ouellet: The Crafty Canadian

Archbishop of Quebec

Intellectual and multilingual, Ouellet would be a good “compromise candidate” — a non-European, non-superpower choice who is nonetheless comfortingly white and conservative. It’s been suggested that Canada’s level of secularism could hurt his chances, but it also means he’s highly experienced at communicating his moral conservatism to a highly secular audience, which could be an asset.

Freedom of Conscience: Ouellet has spoken up in defense of conscience more than once. He opposes his stricter brethren who want to excommunicate or publicly shame Catholics who vote wrong: “You do not lose your right to belong to a community because you do not vote in the right way,” he explained in 2005. He also reminds us that Catholic politicians “have to take into account the whole country and not only their community of faith,” a rare admission for a Catholic cardinal.

Separation of Church and State: While he has claimed to accept that secularism and pluralism have value in modern societies (PDF), he calls for federal funding of pro-life groups, the return of religious symbols to public spaces, and in-school religious education for students (in lieu of a mandatory world-religions course recently added to the curriculum). He blames the loss of Quebec’s strong Catholic identity for most of the province’s problems.

Attitude Toward Science: Generally he avoids scientific topics, preferring to focus on culture, history, and tradition as primary ways of knowing the world and making moral decisions. It’s not clear how he would engage with scientific issues as Pope, or if they would be on his radar at all.

Human Rights Record: In a 2007 letter, he apologized for historical harm caused by Catholics’ past racist, sexist, and anti-gay attitudes. His own thinking may not be all that much more modern, but he at least makes a few shaky steps towards fairness, wrestling with questions of discrimination against gay families, immigrants, and women, in Quebec and in Catholicism more generally.

Overall Prognosis: Ouellet has mastered the trick of trying to sound open-minded and accepting while actually promoting a very narrow and conservative perspective, which would make him a very crafty Holy Father. His tolerance for conscience is unusual in such a conservative thinker, though, making him a very slight improvement over the current Pope… if he maintains that sense of acceptance once he’s out of Canada’s secular, tolerant milieu.

George Cardinal Pell: A Bull in a China Shop

Archbishop of Sydney

This is a candidate who would undoubtedly receive Benedict’s blessing: ecumenical, interested in cross-cultural dialogue, but ultimately rigidly doctrinaire. He might, however, have wounded his chances by remarking that German suffering during the Holocaust outweighed that of the Jews. A past sexual abuse accusation, though the case was resolved in Pell’s favor, might rule him out for all but the most tone-deaf of voting cardinals. That said, his forthright apologies for the suffering of child abuse victims may help his case.

Freedom of Conscience: Like most papabili, Pell insists that a conscience in disagreement with Catholic teaching is necessarily a poorly-formed conscience that can’t be trusted to discern proper morality. He acknowledges the freedom of individuals to depart from Church teaching for reasons of conscience, but adds, “if you make those decisions and they run contrary to central Church teachings, you can’t claim to be a good Catholic.” He has required “religious submission of intellect and will” from Catholic school teachers under his charge.

Separation of Church and State: While he accepts that “the Parliament makes the laws,” he supports withholding Communion from dissenting Catholic politicians, a controversial move wherever it’s been tried. Pell is technically correct — the Church is free to deny Communion to whoever it likes — but lacking in political delicacy and strategy. Such strict control tactics imposed on politicians might render devout Catholics unable to properly represent their constituents’ diverse beliefs, making only lax or indifferent Catholics able to take office and driving the Church deeper into irrelevance.

Attitude Toward Science: Three words for you: Climate change denialism. Pell insists that “it’s no disrespect to science, or scientists, to take these latest claims with a grain of salt” and that when it comes to climate predictions, “I reserve my leaps of faith for religion.” This has led to criticism, even from other religious bodies, that he’s utterly out of touch with the people’s views, with scientific consensus, and ultimately with reality.

Human Rights Record: His apologies for the suffering of sexual abuse victims have helped heal some rifts in the Church Down Under, but Australian feminists must be horrified to hear Pell insist that remaining in bad marriages is preferable to no-fault divorce, and the decision to split up should carry financial penalties levied against the spouse to blame. Involvement with the Pontifical Council for Family seems to have narrowed his vision to predominantly Western concerns, a disadvantage for a leader in a world church.

Overall Prognosis: A Pell papacy would represent theological continuity, but with a greater focus on popular outreach and communication after the highly intellectual Benedict. Pell is straightforward, blunt, and honest, which could work either for or against him if he became the next Pope. Certainly it will lead to a Catholic Church that’s more interested in doctrinal correctness than popular opinion, solidifying its drift towards fundamentalism and its increasing loss of relevance for all but the most conservative members.

Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi: A Breath of Fresh Air

(Titular) Archbishop of Villamagna di Proconsolare

As the Catholic Church veers ever closer to dangerous fundamentalism, Ravasi is the candidate most likely to usher in the kind of massive cultural change that might change the Church’s direction. His election would represent the cardinals’ recognition of the Church’s growing irrelevance in Europe and North America, and their desire to reach out to skeptics and outsiders. Well-read and intellectual, Ravasi has been called the Church’s “goodwill ambassador to secular non-believers”… but he’s also been described as “potentially heterodox,” and that could be a deal-breaker for some cardinals voting in Conclave. His lack of pastoral experience may also hurt his chances.

Freedom of Conscience: While he stands firm on doctrine and professes to be concerned with what the Catholic hierarchy loves to describe as “the dictatorship of relativism” — the novel proposition that another’s values, though different from one’s own, ought still be treated with respect — Ravasi also seeks to move past the Church’s reputation for moral nagging and guilt trips. For instance, he arranged for a Vatican pavilion at a famed Venice art festival, the Biennale, as a way to promote the Church’s emotional and cultural relevance — no lecturing allowed. With the eyes of the world on him as the Conclave approaches, he recently spoke up to say that “sometimes God listens more to blasphemy” than to “pre-fabricated prayers offered during the Sunday liturgy.”

Separation of Church and State: Ravasi’s comments on court cases challenging the presence of religious symbols in public spaces are absolutely a breath of fresh air. He questioned the spiritual chops of Italian Catholics who would defend the presence of a crucifix in a classroom but reject the dignity of their non-Christian neighbours, particularly Muslim immigrants. While most of his compatriots are lamenting the removal of religious symbols from the public square, claiming it impoverishes Christians’ contributions to the public square, a cardinal who prizes actions above symbols comes across as a gem.

Attitude Toward Science: As the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Ravasi marked the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species by hosting an evolution conference in the Vatican, where he defended the theory’s compatibility with Christian faith. He calls for modern communications technology to become part of the Church’s repertoire. If there’s a papabile for the twenty-first century in the lot, it’s Cardinal Ravasi.

Human Rights Record: He has defended immigrants and spoken up on the need to reach out to young Catholics who find the Church increasingly irrelevant, but he lacks the pragmatism to shine in this category. His focus is highly intellectual and very squarely Western, and that has led him into some troubling circumstances. Late last year, Ravasi unintentionally set the Internet on fire with a remark on children in Gaza that was widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. (This article seems to be the flashpoint for that explosion of controversy, though actual news reports appear few and far-between.)

Overall Prognosis: If I still prayed, I’d pray for this guy. He could restore vibrancy and diversity to an institution that has become far too rigid and intolerant of difference or dissent. Cardinal Ravasi represents the Catholic Church’s best chance to recapture some level of relevance within secular democracies around the world.

Angelo Cardinal Scola: The Church’s Crown Prince

Archbishop of Milan

Intellectual, popular, and media-savvy, Scola is considered the Italian favorite… and in a papacy that has been dominated by Italians for most of modern history, with an Italian voting bloc that would love to return to that legacy, Scola’s situation looks good. His strong focus on “family issues” resonates with European and North American cardinals. Above all, appointment to Scola’s position — Archbishop of Milan — has historically been a natural springboard for papal favorites to ascend to the Chair of Saint Peter, a confidence vote from the reigning pontiff.

Freedom of Conscience: Scola calls religious freedom “the basis for ensuring social peace,” but fundamentally fails to understand that such freedom requires a neutral public sphere. He argues that “man has a right not to be forced to act against his conscience and not be prevented from acting in accordance with it”… but he privileges expressions of conscience that conform to Church teaching, and argues that a secular state marginalizes religious people’s contributions to civil discourse.

Separation of Church and State: Scola has been crystal-clear on the circumstances under which secular authority deserves to be respected. Responding to remarks from Venetian politicians about the Church’s place in a secular culture, Scola said, “We show deference to the civil authorities when they respect the divine origin of their power and when they serve the people with objective reference to the law of God.”

Attitude Toward Science: In a 1997 criticism of secular thinking he wrote for L’Osservatore Romano, he argued that secular scientific thinking leads to a spiritual void that people attempt to fill with polytheism, nature worship, and occult practices — the latter, at least, being a sure path into demonic harassment. He affirms the reality of Satan and prescribes the Church as the only sensible balance between “a purely rationalistic approach” that fails to recognize demons’ existence and the kind of paranoia that sees a demon in every corner.

Human Rights Record: Scola is known for a stellar record of dialogue with Muslims, and in such a contentious time for Middle Eastern cultures, that might serve him well. That kind of broad global consciousness is an absolute requirement in a globalized Church… but it’s also fundamentally conservative, making him more likely to reach out to other cultures that parallel Catholic moral teaching than to those in his own culture who question or challenge it.

Overall Prognosis: Expect a highly traditional papacy that pays lip service to the value of conscience… but only if that conscience is “well-formed” enough to agree with Catholic teaching in all things. His chances seem stellar, but the conclave has a dramatic history of upsets, and it’s been said more than once that “he who enters the Conclave as Pope will leave it as a Cardinal.”

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn: The Cardinal Who Listens

Archbishop of Vienna

As a former student of Pope Benedict XVI, Schönborn is close to the current pope and is popular outside of his native Austria, which could give him an edge. But very traditional Catholics see him as unorthodox because of some of his pastoral decision-making around sexual ethics (priestly celibacy, contraception, and participation of gay Catholics in Church culture).

Freedom of Conscience: His is an unusually democratic diocese. When a priest under his care tried to keep non-celibate gay Catholic Florian Stangl from his elected position on a parish council, Schönborn intervened on behalf of the people’s choice. He also presented a petition from his laity to the Vatican, saying he disagreed with its argument — that priestly celibacy should be abolished and women deacons accepted – but that Rome ought to know what the real-world faithful had to say about Church teachings.

Separation of Church and State: While he generally follows the party line, Schönborn tends to emphasize outreach and teaching by example to change hearts and minds on the key Catholic moral issues, seldom calling for government to enshrine Catholic beliefs in law. The closest he seems to have come to that is a call to strengthen educational methods and support for pregnant women in ways that encourage them to “choose life” — which is nonetheless near-heretical in some circles.

Attitude Toward Science: He seems prepared to make reasonable accommodations with a secular, pluralist culture, but his science literacy leaves something to be desired. He famously argued that evolution “in the neo-Darwinian sense” cannot possibly be true without an Intelligent Designer — a stance even the Vatican Observatory finds unsupportable.

Human Rights Record: Schönborn seems to show genuine concern for marginalized and exploited people worldwide. But he also clings to certain doctrinal positions that hurt them, like the evils of condom use in AIDS-ravaged African communities.

Overall Prognosis: Schönborn is pretty open-minded for a Cardinal. He may cling to some out-of-date ideas, but he is willing to listen to a wide range of opinions without automatically dismissing them. Among the most approachable of the papabili, Schönborn is one of the most likely to move the Church in a more open-minded direction.

Peter Cardinal Turkson: A Voice for Developing Nations

Archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana

If elected, Turkson would be the first African pope since the Church’s early years. In an institution where change is so slow, and where a Pope born in Poland was seen as a massive departure from five centuries of an all-Italian pontificate, it’s hard to imagine such a progressive step. Still, Africa is the fastest-growing, most vibrant segment of the Church today, and there’s a chance the cardinals will decide its time has come.

Freedom of Conscience: Although he has opened the door just a crack for condom use within marriages where one spouse is HIV-positive, he clings to the hardline positions on most contentious Catholic issues. He has the habit, common within the Catholic hierarchy, of equating religious freedom with the right to discriminate against others. For instance, he argues for the right to stigmatize gay Africans based on “a call to respect culture” and “a subtle distinction between morality and human rights” — a framework in which gay people have no opportunity to assert freedom of conscience precisely because they’ve already been dismissed as immoral and unworthy of human rights.

Separation of Church and State: It’s not just that Turkson thinks it should be okay to mistreat or abuse gay Africans on an individual, private basis, or even to tell them that they’re terrible people who are going to Hell. His comments, placing respect for culture above gay rights, came in the context of an expression of support for laws like Uganda’s storied “Kill the Gays” bill. He argues that such laws, which prescribe jail time as a penalty for gay sex and death for “repeat offenders,” are “probably commensurate with tradition” in their level of severity.

Attitude Toward Science: At times, Turkson manages to look skeptical and savvy, expressing skepticism over the power of the Western biotech lobby and using pragmatic arguments against condoms instead of the standard moral fussing most Vatican-watchers have come to expect. At other times, though, he’s been positively credulous — he once played an error-ridden YouTube video on “Muslim demographics” in a synod. He later claimed his goal was to highlight the low birth rate in European countries as evidence of “the anti-life tendency and culture in the Western world,” but he instead stirred up charges of bigotry and tone-deafness and demonstrated a striking failure to fact-check.

Human Rights Record: Reporters have called him “the spokesman for the Church’s social conscience.” He has argued in favor of African homophobia and absolute celibacy for HIV-positive Christians, but his priority is undoubtedly economic injustice and exploitation of poor countries: he witnesses the consequences of such global-scale inequality on a daily basis. His firsthand knowledge of third-world poverty could be a massive game-changer for the institution, shifting its priorities away from the moralizing so familiar to Westerners.

Overall Prognosis: A Turkson papacy would represent a massive priority shift. He shares Benedict’s conservative values, but having a Pope who’s witnessed the crippling poverty of many African nations alongside the opulence of the developed world just might tip the scales away from policing Western sexual ethics and into greater social relevance.

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