New side advert

14 April 2005 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

The next Pope

FR JOE McVEIGH argues that the Catholic Church needs a new kind of leader, curbing the power of the Curia, returning to the vision of Vatican II and focusing on the justice agenda.

Pope John Paul II may go down in history as one of the greatest of all the more than 260 Popes. Because of his open support for the Solidarity Movement in Poland he is credited with playing a large part in the collapse of 'atheistic Communism' in his native country and throughout Eastern Europe.

Because of his many journeys around the world, he was and will be regarded as a world class statesman. World leaders lined up to meet him and all made it a point of attending his funeral. Apart from his obvious spirituality and his political astuteness, he had enormous charm. Even though he was ailing and feeble, he was the most charismatic leader in the world for the last 50 years.

He has written numerous books and encyclicals encouraging Catholics to return to Jesus Christ and that only by faith in Jesus Christ could people find their true humanity and true happiness. One had to admire his amazing energy and single-mindedness. He will be a hard act to follow, certainly in terms of media popularity.


For all John Paul II's charisma and popularity, I believe that it is imperative that a new kind of leader is chosen by the Conclave of Cardinals.

This new kind of leader would belong to the progressive wing of the Catholic church, someone like Cardinal Daneels from Belgium or one of the progressives from South America, someone who would return to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and who would listen to the 'voice of the faithful' and not to the Roman Curia. Someone who would focus on the justice agenda of Vatican II, an agenda which is dear to the hearts of many Catholics throughout the world. Sixty per cent of the world's Catholics now live in the so-called Third World. Most are very poor. Many feel that the official Catholic Church has supported the status quo and not the movements to bring about justice and equality. Many in El Salvador are unhappy that Monsignor Oscar Romero was not named a saint by the Pope, who named more saints than any other Pope in history. Many in Nicaragua remember the humiliation of Jesuit priest, Ernesto Cardenal, when the Pope visited that country during the Contra war between the United States and the Nicaraguan Government.


Many of us who grew up in the Catholic Church and those of us who studied for the priesthood in the 1960s and 1970s were full of enthusiasm and hope because of the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council (1961-'64). However, many of us have become more than a little disillusioned because there has been, especially during the 20 years of this pontificate, a rowing back, a turning back to the old times and the old pre-Vatican II authoritarian ways.

If there is one issue that the next Pope must tackle urgently, it is the way the curia — the Vatican council of state — has taken over control of the church and acts like a church government. This is against the whole spirit of Vatican II. Instead of decentralising power to the churches as Vatican II envisaged, the Roman Curia has ensured that all power is centralised. There is now a great gap between the local church and the universal church.

Another crucial issue for the next pope is the priesthood. Will he allow a debate on women priests and married clergy?

He must, if a large section of the church is to receive the sacraments and if many are not to be totally alienated.

What about the reactionaries in the Church who will not countenance change? Their main argument against women priests, for example, is that there were no women at the Last Supper!


Many in the Catholic Church now realise that it is not enough to manage a church in decline. Thought must be given to how to revitalise this church so that we will not be reacting to crises like the scarcity of male vocations but rather working towards the full implementation of the reforms of Vatican II — especially in the liturgy.

To those who belong to the progressive wing of the church, neither the practice of male-only priests nor the practice of unmarried priests is set in stone and immutable. These are part of church custom rather than Revelation and can be changed at the drop of a hat. In fact, they will have to be changed if the Catholic Church is to survive and become a beacon of light and hope in a divided and dangerous world.

A lot will depend on the kind of vision of church the next Pope has and how free he will make himself to implement his vision of a new church. Given the make-up of the College of Cardinals, it will be nothing short of a miracle if we get a Pope who will lead us forward to a new springtime and to the kind of radical change that will make the church a place where young and old, men and women of all nations find a home and sense of mission. Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit has worked miracles before.

So who will be the next leader of the world's one billion Catholics? Will he (and at this time it must be a "he"!) come from Europe, North, South or Central America, Asia, or Africa -or even Australia? Will he be a conservative in the mould of John Paul II or a reforming progressive like Pope John XXIII or the saintly John Paul I, who died in the first days of his pontificate more than 25 years ago?

Given the make-up of the college of 117 Cardinals who have a vote, is it possible that he could be a progressive?

The answer is nobody knows who will emerge as the new leader when the cardinals meet in Rome to appoint the next Bishop of Rome and therefore the next Pope. Progressives in the Catholic Church would hope that he will be someone who will be strong and determined to curb the power of the Roman curia and someone who will not feel tied to ground rules put in place by his predecessor in his many Encyclicals and in the "official" Catechism of the Catholic Church.


For progressive Catholics, the hope is that the church will return to Vatican II and introduce the much needed reform in the way it is organised and in the way it relates to other churches and religions. Those who are happy with the status quo will be hoping for someone in the same mould as John Paul II. There must be plenty of them among the Cardinals, though few with his charm and charisma.

Whoever the next Pope will be, he will face a church divided and agitated about many issues, about the role of women in the ordained ministry, the future of the priesthood, the role of the laity in the church and the relationship with other churches and non-Christians. He will also have to deal with the anger of many of the faithful about the way many bishops and Cardinals have dealt with priests who have been guilty of child sex abuse.

The incoming Pope will also face a growing demand at grassroots level that the Catholic Church will follow the example of the CELAM bishops of Latin America and make a preferential option for the increasing number of poor in the world. The church must become at all levels a clear witness to the Gospel of the Poor in the world today. At this time, the demand will be more specific and will challenge the official church to place all its vast wealth and resources at the disposal of the poor and those who work with the oppressed.

To adopt a radical approach to the global economic situation would be a new departure for the leadership of the church which would inevitably bring the Catholic Church into direct conflict with the superpowers, especially the government and military establishment in the US. The new leader would have to oppose those governments that promote globalisation and the consequent widening of the gap between rich and poor. It would inevitably cause friction and tension within the church itself between those Catholics who wish to maintain the present political and economic system and those who seek radical change at both a local and global level.

To carry this project forward, the incoming Pope will need to be a man of strong convictions about the Gospel of the Poor and the role of the Church as 'the voice of the voiceless' in a capitalistic world.


One of the most radical and visionary movements to emerge in the years after Vatican II was the liberation theology movement. This movement was opposed to the prevailing imperial theology that had dominated Catholic and Christian theology for centuries. The liberation theology movement sought to create a new kind of church of the poor and working class, where clergy and laity worked and struggled together to oppose systemic injustice. This church first emerged among the poor and oppressed in South and Central America. It also found adherents in South Africa and in many countries in Asia. It has not too many adherents in Europe — except in some inner city communities in Dublin and Belfast, who witness to the gospel of justice and peace.

The Vatican (or Holy See) was not impressed with these developments and made known its unhappiness in a number of strong statements opposing liberation theology, claiming that it espoused Marxism and violent revolution. The leader of this opposition is the right-wing German, Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Faith.

While the liberation theology movement continues to influence the church at grassroots level, it has lost the momentum and energy of the early days of the 1970s and 1980s. However, the disquiet within the church, even among many bishops, about the way the Church is ruled at the top continues. It was evident at a recent Synod of Bishops in Rome. The major cause of the disquiet is the way the Curia has taken over the leadership from the Pope and the Bishops. It is as if the Pope is now a prisoner of the Curia. When the bishops came to deciding about producing their final report they insisted that it should be read by them and presented by them and not by the Curia. The Curia is seen as reactionary, opposed to the thinking and ideals of Vatican II. It is seen to be strongly opposed to giving the laity any power in a church which they insist is not a democracy.

The power of the Curia has increased immensely during the pontificate of John Paul II. The main spokesman of the Curia is Cardinal Ratzinger, a staunch opponent of liberation theology and a close ally of reactionary movements like Opus Dei. He has been the dominant force in the Vatican during the past 20 years in determining church policy and ensuring "orthodoxy" in theological writing and teaching. Because of his influence a number of leading theologians, like Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung, have been sacked from their teaching jobs. This attempt to stifle debate and discussion about the meaning of the Gospel in today's world, is seen, by many, as a backward step to the days of the Inquisition.


There is a realisation among many of the faithful that all is not well with the Catholic Church, the church in which they were baptised and confirmed and to which many like myself have devoted their entire lives.

There is, we are told, a crisis in the priesthood. Morale is at an all time low because of the revelation of sex abuse scandals and the lack of vocations, but, I would suggest, most of all because of a lack of leadership in the many countries throughout the world.

The next Pope will have to deal with these highly contentious and difficult issues and try to bring all sides with him if there is not to be another schism in the church. Should he, by the grace of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, belong to the progressive wing, it will not be easy to bring the reactionary conservatives on board, given that they have had such a long period to consolidate.

However, there is now a new realisation in many parts of the world that the church is more than the Pope and the priests and the bishops. The church is the people of God. The problem is that the Catholic Church is not a democracy, except in a very limited and limiting way as when 130 Cardinals, all carefully appointed by Rome, will select the next leader of the world's one billion Catholics.

It is time for change in the church and time for action. Already there are signs from the United States that the faithful are beginning to make their voices heard as a result of the sex abuse revelations. It is time now for the laity to have their say in the appointment of bishops and priests, cardinals and Popes. The days of secrecy and clericalism are numbered.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

Buy An Phoblacht magazine here


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

Powered by Phoenix Media Group