April 05, 2005

At a crossroads

Chicago Tribune

By Eileen P. Flynn, a professor at St. Peter's College and author of "Catholics at a Crossroads: Coverup, Crisis and Cure" and "Catholicism: Agenda for Renewal."

Published April 5, 2005

People have absorbed the sad news that Pope John Paul II has passed on to the joy of the beatific vision, and our attention is turning to the issue of succession. Who will next carry the shepherd's staff and wear the fisherman's ring?

We are not accustomed to thinking of the papacy in functional terms. Instead, we tend to focus on the person who holds the office, the pope. Since Pope John Paul was such a strong and dominant person and since he held the papal office for more than a generation, we struggle to realize that the functions of the office differ from the officeholder and that they may be more important than the personality of the individual who sits on the throne at St. Peter's Basilica.

If the cardinal-electors want the next pope to be as interesting, energetic and influential as Pope John Paul, they will have an impossible task. And, they will be making a strategic error. Instead, as the Roman Catholic Church looks forward to the conclave to elect a successor to Karol Wojtyla, it would make more sense to consider the needs of the Catholic Church and the type of leader who has the strength to meet those needs. This leader need not be photogenic or silver-tongued; he could dislike air travel and feel uncomfortable with large crowds. No problem. Catholics will be fortunate if the next pope is open-minded, fair and totally dedicated to a clearly defined mission that is in line with the core priorities of Christianity. ...

The church's recent culture closed in on itself, and the hierarchy has been unable to credibly administer the church. The priest sex abuse scandal provides a tragic example of a church that lacked credibility and that refused to deal forthrightly with the crisis until leadership was dragged kicking and screaming by the media to listen to victim-survivors speak of their molestation. Bishops gave bureaucratic reasons for why they did not act decisively to remove priest abusers and Pope John Paul remained aloof from the crisis for as long as humanly possible.

How could this have been the case? For hundreds of years popes and bishops have considered themselves above the laity, a privileged class, leaders who were accountable to God, but not God's people, the church. This ingrained misconception needs to be abandoned, first by the next pope and, subsequently, by each and every member of the hierarchy.

Posted by kshaw at April 5, 2005 07:37 PM