Habemus papam.  We have a pope.  He has taken the name of Francis and he is a son of Ignatius. Loyola, that is; a Companion of Jesus.

I think this is an auspicious time, a time of hope, a promising time. Maybe even, a kairos moment.

It will also give us some time to think about the future of the papacy as an institution of more than passing media interest, a locus of factious division from within the Catholic community, and a sign of larger Christian disunity.

Popes come and go -- sometimes with unholy rapidity and sometimes after a long tenure.

But what about the papacy in the 21st Century? Now that the devotional hoopla has climaxed, the election process has terminated, the installation is imminent, and a new hand is on the rudder of Peter's Barque, we can distance ourselves from the spectacle for a moment, resist the seduction of the exotic and the  sometimes sublime allure of ritual and rubric that define an institutional rite of passage with no global parallels, and ask the deeper questions.

Contrary to the clerical simperings and lay profusions of fervour and giddiness that characterize an unhealthy measure of expectation and reaction in the Catholic world, and contrary to the ever irresistible urge of the media, Catholic and secular, to "celebritize" the personalities of the players, the abiding questions of relevance, charism and history remain.

Why should the world care who is pope? The elaborate and age-encrusted ceremonies surrounding a papal election make for compelling viewing. There is nothing quite like it. But what is "it" and why should even Catholics care? 

The Petrine Ministry is a ministry of unity, a teaching ministry, a ministry of love and leadership. But how is that exercised in the contemporary world? The Renaissance trappings of court, the gestures, vesture, modes of address, and compulsory etiquette of deference to office and rank, are some distance from the radical simplicity espoused by the Gospel, the self-emptying of ego, wealth and privilege that define so many of those in monastic and religious life, to say nothing of the vast majority of the Catholic laity for whom the demands of family life can be all consuming.  In short, those prelates bedecked in finery, feted regularly by the well-heeled and adoring, and accustomed to exceptional respect by virtue of their office, are a far cry from those bishops who actually and not metaphorically shed their blood for truth, faith and justice.

The mantra that the Curia -- the Roman bureaucratic arm of the pontiff -- needs to be reformed rather misses the point. Again and again we heard during the recent papal election from church leaders and spokespersons that the big obstacle to effective church governance and credibility is a dysfunctional Curia. In other words, clean out the Curia and all be well.

This is extraordinary actually if for no other reason than the transparent revisionism involved in the charge itself. Like American presidents who need to shore up their electability by running against Washington, or Canadian prime ministers who identify the civil service as an obstacle to right government, many of the cardinal contenders, their advocates, and a preponderance of priest-spokesmen, deployed the same tactic during the recent election. Clean up the Curia; root out "the filth"; scour the halls of the Vatican administrative apparatus.

A great and common trope: the pope is held hostage by the very people whose raison d'etre is to serve him. The pope himself is perfect, likely holy, surrounded by dross and corruption. The structures aren't the problem; the Curia is.

Neat equation but unconvincing upon closer inspection. John Paul II, and particularly Benedict XVI, are seen as victims of Curia intransigence and intrigue and yet the key figures in the Curia were their men. They appointed them and they relied on them. They rewarded their loyalty and now they are being identified as the villains.  Nothing seems to better unite the liberals and the reactionaries of the church than this seeming truism: the Curia did the pope in. But the record -- the recent record -- reveals that such a summary conclusion is unwarranted.

Benedict's Prefects, Pro-Prefects and Secretaries of the dicasteries or departments that constitute his management team are not unaware of the pontiff's intellectual predilections, aesthetic tastes, and spiritual interests. They know their man. To make the Curia the bogeyman, the cause for all the dysfunction the College of Cardinals now laments, is to shortchange the truth in the interest of underscoring their obedience to the pope(s) who "created" them.

The problem isn't the Curia; the problem is the relentless concentration of power in Rome, the emasculation of national episcopal conferences, the truncating if not constricting of the notion of collegiality to a working model that makes a mockery of the term, and the driving need to control all the levers of power. This passion for control has been a defining characteristic of both the John Paul II and Benedict XVI pontificates.  It derives in part out of the deep conviction that the pastoral solicitude of the papacy demands such rigid oversight because many bishops are not entirely to be trusted with making the right judgements, be they doctrine or morals-specific, that uniformity is a mark of unity, and that safeguarding orthodoxy is best left in the capable hands of Peter and his appointed subordinates. Put starkly, it means that such conciliar notions as "unity in diversity," collegiality, subsidiarity and lay empowerment are given scant notice. They detract from the greater challenges facing the church, challenges the papacy is best equipped to handle alone.

This is the heart of the problem.  And so various new bodies like the Ecclesia Dei Commission, the Vox Clara group, and others are established to guarantee ever greater vigilance in ensuring that the pope's view, indeed his will, is implemented. Often over the express opposition of large segments of the hierarchy outside of Rome.  This was especially the case with the re-introduction of the Extraordinary Rite according to the 1962 Missal, the imposition of a literal translation of the fundamental worship texts that profoundly disturbed bishops and scholars throughout the English-speaking world (to say nothing of hordes of confused and distressed lay people), and the lifting of the excommunication of the Lefebrvist bishops.

The right balancing, then, of the powers and responsibilities of the epsicopate with the papacy and the Curia, the devolution of appropriate areas of authority to the diocesan bishops who know their communities directly and immediately, the loosening of the bonds of constraint regarding theological scholarship and investigation (a credible and authentic intellectual life cannot thrive in an environment of delation and censorship), and the cultivation of a respect for the many gifts of the laity that eschews the residual negativity of a clericalism even the popes have deplored, provides the right road map for an ecclesial future faithful to the Second Vatican Council.

Francis may be just the pope to re-connect with the Council in an imaginative and fearless way.


Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB