AS WE AWAIT the election of a new pope, there are many interesting things happening during these interim weeks.
What I find most surprising, and hopeful, is the fact that it is being increasingly accepted across the board that the Vatican itself is in urgent need of reform. So much has come out in the last couple of years that shows conclusively that it is a dysfunctional system.
What is really surprising is that even some of the cardinals are voicing the need for reform of the Curia. Words like scandal and corruption are being used widely. So those of us who hope for reform and renewal in the Catholic Church will look to the actions of the new pope in his first few months to see if he is serious about reforming the Curia.
If we get a pope who continues the policies and actions of the last two, then the Church is in enormous trouble.
I am not optimistic. The system itself militates against change. For instance, some people are hoping for a pope from Africa or the Far East, or maybe Latin America. If that happens my fear is that the curial system will quickly gobble him up, and he will be rendered ineffective. No system wants to relinquish power, and the Curia will certainly resist in every way they can any effort at reform.
The other way in which the system militates against change is in how the new pope is chosen. When Benedict retired all the heads of the different ‘congregations’ within the Vatican had to step down from office. The new pope will not know he is getting the job until the votes are cast. And when that happens he will immediately be caught up in the ritual, – the dressing up, receiving congratulations from all the cardinals, and then out to the window to be greeted by the people. He will have no time to think or to plan.
When Enda Kenny, for instance, was elected Taoiseach he was fairly sure for some time that he would get the job, and he also had his own team coming in with him. The new pope will have none of those advantages.
It would be an extraordinarily courageous action by him to tell all the heads of the congregations that he was not re-appointing them, and then to proceed in a very short space of time to replace them by people from outside the system who would come in with fresh ideas and approaches. But that is the only way that the system could be cleaned out. The easy way for him will be to tell all the existing heads to resume their official positions. In which case there will be no change.
I am sorry that Keith O’Brien will not be at the conclave. He showed some signs that he is a man of open mind, willing to think in new ways. He did make mistakes in his life, as he has admitted. But as a society and a Church we are obsessed with matters sexual. When O’Brien said over a week ago that many priests found it hard to live the celibate life, we know now that he was speaking out of his own experience.
People who speak the truth out of their lived experience should always be listened to. I would be much more interested in banning from the conclave those cardinals who did not promote reform and renewal in their diocese, or who did not make place for the voice of women at all levels in their church.
So, watch the first couple of weeks of the new pope. See what he does with the Curia. In particular, take note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. If the existing incumbent is re-appointed, then you can take it that there will be no real change, that things will go on as they have done for the last thirty five years.
Tony Flannery is a member of The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). The ACP is an association for Catholic priests who wish to have a forum and a voice to reflect, discuss and comment on issues affecting the Irish Church and society today. He recently refused to sign a letter supporting Church teachings on women and sexual issues.