As the College of Cardinals begins its conclave today in Rome to select the next Pope, I find myself intensely interested in the outcome. Since I am an Anabaptist, a child of the “radical” Reformation, I’ve spent some time reflecting on why that is so.
First, the Roman Catholic Church is an unbroken link to the first century Roman church for all Christians, no matter our denomination. Before the so-called “Great Schism” between the eastern and western church in 1054, the Christian church led from Rome was THE primary Christian church. No matter if we are Eastern or Western Christians, no matter how Protestant or Anabaptist some of us are, the Church of Rome is still in some way our Mother church.
Second, it remains the largest Christian tradition in the world. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, there are slightly more than 2 billion Christians in the world, and more than half of them are Catholic. What the Catholic Church and its leader say and do has an impact on all Christians. Despite their other failings, the strong leadership of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for peace and economic justice was globally significant.
Because of this history and size, the leadership of the Catholic Church matters. The past 50 years have shown that, for better and for worse. On the positive side of the ledger, the documents of Vatican II, from Pacem in Terris to Gaudium et Spes, the engagement of Catholic social teaching with the world has been a source of education for me and many other non-Catholics. The development of liberation theology – the “preferential option for the poor” – and the price paid by those who made that commitment, from Archbishop Oscar Romero to countless others whose names will never be known, has been an inspiration and source of reflection on the history of Christian faithfulness and martyrdom that began with Jesus. Given my tradition’s history of persecution and suffering, it carries a special resonance.
On the other hand, the church as a human institution is in need of serious reforms. A stifling bureaucracy, allegations of financial corruption, the disempowerment of women, and the continuing outrage of sexual abuse have seriously damaged the church. There will be a special responsibility on the next pope to exert strong leadership in repenting for those wrongs and ensuring that systems are in place that can prevent them from reoccurring.
My prayer is that as the cardinals begin their task, God’s Spirit will lead them to choose a leader who can and will correct the weaknesses, strengthen the good, and provide faithful leadership both for the Catholic Church and for all Christians.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Adviser for Sojourners.