March 12, 2013


Like everyone else, I am caught up in the drama to elect a new pope. The stakes are high and the outcome uncertain. The first pope of the new century will have his hands full dealing with a Vatican scandal and the continuing aftershocks of the child molestation outrages, not to mention the still floundering efforts of the Church to deal with a dwindling priesthood and the role of women as either part of the problem or the solution, they can never seem to make up their minds which.

That's quite a full plate of problems, but for now the process has center stage. Conclave. The very word summons up the Middle Ages, a time when Latin still roamed the earth freely and the machinations of prelates and statesmen made today's crop of practitioners look like amateurs.

The idea of conclave was born out of frustration. In 1268, after watching the College of Cardinals deliberate for months, the residents of Viterbo locked the doors, hoping that would prompt them to make a choice. When that didn't work, they put the cardinals on a diet of bread and water. When that didn't work, they tore the roof off to expose them to the elements. (Am I the only one who wishes we could adopt some of these methods here in the good old U.S. of A? Forget the the fancy dinners. Lock them up, take away their cell phones, and starve them. We'll get a budget fix soon enough.)

They finally elected Pope Gregory X in 1271. Three years later, at the Second Council of Lyons, Gregory X made formal the idea of locking up the College of Cardinals, calling it cum clave, or with key. With a few modifications, the idea has persisted to modern times.

Tradition matters to Catholics, but you get an unmistakable sense that this is not a time for business as usual. Any new pope will have to deal with an apparently massive corruption scandal inside the Vatican. He will have to find a way to expand the flock and those who minister to the flock. He will have to walk a fine line between those who hunger for new approaches and those who think the old ways are still best. An institution used to moving at a glacial pace will have to accept change at warp speed if it is to stem the internal rot that is eating the church from the inside out.

I am not a practicing Catholic, but I do think the world can be a better place with a healthy and vibrant Catholic Church. The positive thing about institutions slow to change is that they can act as a counterbalance to the forces of progress that rush madly towards the next great thing without stopping to consider what we will do with it once we have it firmly in our grasp.

Science is playing with a new set of toys that will take mankind one giant step closer to assuming powers thought to be the province of the divine alone. As we plunge headlong into our brave new world, we will still carry within us the same old human weaknesses. Pride still goeth before the fall.

The Catholic Church perfected the idea of sin, original or otherwise. It gave us the memory of paradise lost. These are things we need to be reminded of from time to time. A new pope can give voice to the moral hazards of unrestrained human curiosity with an authority that few others can command. When he steps out onto that balcony, we will all be waiting to hear what he has to say. Let's hope he can bring old wisdom to new problems.

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