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The Papal Conclave is set to begin on Monday. John Paul’s ring has been smashed and the cardinals are winding down their last meetings before the real deliberations begin. For an interesting look at the history of the Conclave procedure, check out Saturday’s National Post. Curious onlookers should know that Catholics do not see the politicking and horsetrading of the event to undermine its credibility. They’ll concede that is has a tawdry aspect to it, but as EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo points out, “the Holy Spirit will operate not in spite of, but through the egos, the press coverage, and politics of this conclave.” That view is not exceptional; it is simply how Catholics reconcile the workings of providence intertwined with human foibles and human freedom.

Two blogs that might be good sources for Conclave coverage are The Pope Blog, and a new entry, The New Pope Blog.


Writing in Reason magazine, Patrick Basham rightly notes that the Conclave is likely to have different effects on different parts of the world:

In assessing Pope John Paul II’s impact upon American politics, one is struck by the contrast between his influences in different parts of the world. He clearly helped to advance the cause of political and economic liberty in Eastern Europe. However, his political contribution within the American context advanced those who advocate a greater role for the state in shepherding individuals all the way through their private lives.

That only appears to be contradiction. The key to the puzzle is in understanding the church’s view of man, and hence itself and it’s relationship to dogma.


Criticism of the Church’s position is summarized in this review of George Wiegel’s latest book, The Cube and the Cathedral:

Practicing Christianity in Europe today enjoys a status not dissimilar to smoking marijuana or engaging in unorthodox sexual activities–few people mind if you do so in private, but you are expected not to talk about it or ask others whether they do it too. Christianity is considered retrograde and atavistic in a “progressive” society devoted to the good life–long holidays, short work hours and generous government benefits.

What is the deeper source of European antipathy to religion? For Mr. Weigel, the problem goes all the way back to the 14th century, when scholastics like William of Ockham argued for “nominalism.” According to their philosophy, universals–concepts such as “justice” or “freedom” and qualities such as “white” or “good”–do not exist in the abstract but are merely words that denote instances of what they describe. A current of thought was set into motion, Mr. Weigel believes, that pulled European man away from transcendent truths. One casualty was a fixed idea of human nature.

“If there is no such thing as human nature,” Mr. Weigel argues, “then there are no universal moral principles that can be read from human nature.” If there are no universal moral truths, then religion, positing them, is merely a form of oppression or myth, one from which Europe’s elites see themselves as liberated.

Quebec’s rejection of the old church is currently expressed along these lines, but it may (I hope) be possible to reshape it in such a way that the target of scorn falls where it will do more good, and that is on a top heavy and too cozy relationship between church and state. Attacking the existence of universals is too much. Understandable, perhaps, but philosophically not very sound. Justice, freedom, human nature and human dignity fall, if they are concrete and imperative, under that aegis. The delivery method deserves more criticism than the medicine.

The reviewer concludes correctly, I think:

Without a religious dimension, Mr. Weigel notes, a commitment to human freedom is likely to be attenuated, too weak to make sacrifices in its name. Europe’s political elites especially, but its citizens as well, believe in freedom and democracy of course, but they are reluctant to put the “good life” on hold and put lives on the line when freedom is in need of a champion

The Economist writes that what the west may need is someone to clean house administratively and to attempt an articulate peace with those who are unlikely to ever darken the door of any church. That might put to rest accusations of hypocrisy and insincerity from those who might be potential allies – young people under thirty seeking a place to inform, and act on, their conscience. The Economist goes on to suggest that that line of thinking may improve the chances for a Canadian Pope:

cardinals may decide instead to focus on reversing the “silent apostasy” of Catholics in the wealthy world—the invisible drift that has swept millions of baptised Catholics away from the regular practice of their faith. There is thus a plausible case for selecting a relatively liberal pope who understands the West. A pontiff from the United States is almost certainly out of the question because it would identify the church with the sole superpower. On the other hand, a Canadian might be possible.


There are challenges in other parts of the world as well. The Vatican has a strained relationship with Communist China. Its recognition of Taiwan’s government is a major irritant here. Currently,

two churches exist in China side-by-side. One is the officially sanctioned China Patriotic Catholics Association with roughly 5 million members. It has its own priests, bishops, and seminaries. Then there is the “underground” church, loyal to Rome, which has its own priests, bishops, clandestine seminaries and possibly 8 million worshipers. (Hong Kong and Macau are the only places where the Roman Catholic Church operates openly in China).

It is illegal for the underground church to celebrate Mass in public, and Beijing still arrests priests and bishops who do so and are caught. Three were arrested last year, including the 84-year-old Bishop of Xuanhua. Only days before the Pope’s death it was reported that two more elderly priests and one elderly bishop were apprehended.

In the middle east, there is the question of how to deal with Islam:

Many people in the Vatican view Christianity as under siege in parts of the world. They say that Christian populations are shrinking in countries in the Middle East in part because of long-term discrimination and repression by Muslim majorities. Catholic churches in Baghdad have been the targets of terrorist attacks; Christian communities are under physical attack by Muslims in Nigeria and the Philippines. Sub-Saharan Africa, the fastest-growing area for Catholicism, is also the fastest-growing for Islam.

In the Muslim world, many people view the situation in reverse, believing that the Christian West, through movies and television, is reshaping the values of Islam and, through the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, taking over historically Muslim lands.

“The relationship among religions is probably the most significant” issue facing the next pope, said Rev. Augustine DiNoia, the second-ranking official in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is in charge of safeguarding orthodoxy. “The fundamental problem is how to value another religion without devaluing your own.”


“Running a global organisation with 4,700 senior executives (bishops) and 400,000 line managers (priests)” (figures from The Economist) is certain to be an extremely challenging task, no matter who wins the nomination. Success will depend on finding lines of commonality in the cultures and aims of people around the world. If the Church’s view of universals is correct, the task will be incredibly daunting but possible. We should expect stumbles and falls aplenty on the way. If it is wrong, the challenge to find and express our hopes for human dignity will be difficult, and perhaps impossible.

If the church should stumble badly I suspect we will see more stories like the one out of France a few summers ago when senior citizens were dying in a heat wave because there were not enough staff to look after them, or like this story out of England, where justices ruled an abortion at 28 weeks due to a cleft palate did not break English law forbidding abortion after 24 weeks unless the child is “seriously handicapped.” Those stories are the result of the “good life,” or positive liberty, too vigorously pursued, while failure on the middle eastern front could lead to continued fantasies there about Muslim re-conquest of a “weak and decadent” Europe.

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Written by Curt

April 16, 2005 at 1:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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