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Pros and cons

Conservatism in a new pope is both a positive and a negative

Issue: "The fewer and the proud," April 23, 2005

So if you had been appointed to the Catholics' College of Cardinals, and were asked to help elect a new pope for the next decade or two, what kind of man would you be looking for to succeed John Paul II?

Yes, I felt a twinge of politically incorrect guilt when I said "man" instead of "person"-as though, by my carelessly using such a sexist term, I might be excluding half the human race from serving as the next pope. But realism, even in the year 2005, says that if no one in the Vatican conclave is a woman, the chances of those men's picking a female to lead the way are somewhat less than zero. The time may come, very far in the future, when the jubilant cry will rise, "Habemus Mamam!-we have a mama." But probably not in our lifetimes.

Yet even after barring all women, and naturally disqualifying all non-Roman Catholics, you've still got a church full of a remarkable spectrum of perspectives from which to choose as you look for someone who can approach the worldwide acclaim that John Paul II enjoyed. Out of all that diversity, what priorities would you pick?

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You must understand, of course, that I'm addressing my question right now only to readers of WORLD magazine. And the last time we asked, only 1 percent of you 140,000 subscribers said you were Roman Catholics. The other 99 percent of you tend overwhelmingly to call yourselves evangelical Protestants. (Roughly one-fifth of the American population at large is Roman Catholic, and another one-fifth is considered to be evangelical Protestant. Only a tiny handful of Catholics think of or call themselves evangelical.)

And what would these evangelical Protestants look for if they got the chance to elect the new pope?

There's the rub-and it's a distinctly uncomfortable rub at that. For the very mindset that would make a conservative pope popular with many evangelicals on some fronts would just as quickly dictate postures by him that would alienate those same evangelicals.

Here's where the alliance holds: Stay firm on abortion and euthanasia; hold the line on traditional marriage; keep saying no to special rights for homosexuals; don't flinch on male headship (although evangelicals are flabbier on that one than are their Catholic friends).

But the very Catholics likely to stand their ground on those fronts are typically those who are more "traditional" in areas where evangelicals insist change is needed in the Catholic way of seeing things. Evangelicals tell me they'd love to see a pope who would enunciate clearly a more biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Evangelicals tell me they'd like to see a pope who moved his church from an emphasis on hierarchical authority and toward one on biblical authority. Evangelicals tell me they'd love to see a pope who would move his church away from a focus on Mary and other saints and toward a focus on Jesus Himself.

Which is, of course, as a good friend reminded me, only to raise the old question: "Is the pope Catholic?" Or, in this case, if he were even to suggest such radical re-expressions of truth, could he still be called a Roman Catholic? Wouldn't you almost have to call such changes, if you'll pardon the expression, a reformation?

None of which is meant-especially at this moment of transition and hope-to pick on or put down Roman Catholics. All of our churches, in one way or another, need substantial reformation and significant reawakening to God's truth.

It is instead to point out the complexity of a relationship that used to be simpler. It was easier when evangelicals and Roman Catholics barely talked-when we saw each other only in shades of black and white, with almost no grays in between. Now, in a shockingly secular age, we share so much about many core beliefs and institutions. Indeed, we share so much that we often see ourselves more as allies than as enemies. And yet we know how great is the distance that simultaneously separates us.

Nor are such tensions unique to the relationship between us evangelical Protestants and our Roman Catholic friends. Some of the very same tensions fill the Roman Catholic church itself around the world-and also the halls where the cardinals have met in Rome. That's why I think it may be later, rather than sooner, when they announce to the world: "Habemus Papam!"

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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