Cardinals, choose wisely

Cardinals, including U.S. Roger Mahony, left, and Timothy Dolan, third from left, arrive for a meeting at the Vatican, Monday March 11, 2013. Cardinals have gathered for their final day of talks before the conclave to elect the next pope amid debate over whether the Catholic Church needs a manager pope to clean up the Vatican's messy bureaucracy or a pastoral pope who can inspire the faithful and make Catholicism relevant again. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Cardinals, including U.S. Roger Mahony, left, and Timothy Dolan, third from left, arrive for a meeting at the Vatican, Monday March 11, 2013. Cardinals have gathered for their final day of talks before the conclave to elect the next pope amid debate over whether the Catholic Church needs a manager pope to clean up the Vatican's messy bureaucracy or a pastoral pope who can inspire the faithful and make Catholicism relevant again. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) (Alessandra Tarantino)
Posted: March 12, 2013

Thank God for small miracles. Or, in this case, huge ones.

The decision by Pope Benedict XVI to resign has given the Catholic Church an unprecedented opportunity to save itself. Whether the conclave of cardinals in Rome takes advantage of this blessing remains to be seen.

As one of the Catholic faithful, I desperately want to believe the conclave will choose wisely, and that it will:

Do whatever is necessary to rebuild the greatest, most benevolent institution the world has ever known;

Admit that its hard times - the sex-abuse scandal, corruption in the Vatican, and genuflecting at the wrong altar (that of political correctness) - are sins of its own making;

Finally learn to replace arrogance with humility, and value both forgiveness, and asking to be forgiven;

Understand the most powerful tool in the 21st century: public relations;

Grasp that it must adapt, not in ways that undermine its divine theology, but by approaching its critical "earthly" issues with a fresh perspective.

I also want to believe that the church will cease being a paper tiger, and instead resurrect its once mighty political power.

But like Thomas, I have my doubts.

Given recent history, the church does not inspire confidence that it has learned from its mistakes and gained the wisdom to embark on the path to growth. While it would be a good bet that the next pope will be business-as-usual, it would be a losing hand for the church.

Here's what the cardinals can do to ensure the church's survival:

1. Don't pick another frail, white-haired pope. Benedict makes John McCain look downright boyish, so picking another old man is a surefire way to lose the middle-aged and younger generations. Fair or not, appearance matters. However, choosing a pope primarily on ethnicity would be a huge mistake, as it wouldn't address, let alone solve, the church's problems.

2. Select a charismatic pope who, in both perception and reality, can communicate that he is in touch with the rank and file. The new pontiff cannot afford to be aloof or insulated since those traits have significantly contributed to the church's decline. How bad has it become? One in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic, and the 30 million who have left would be the third-largest denomination in the country. Vocations are minuscule, and the stigma associated with entering the seminary keeps even more away. Within a decade, Catholic education will be largely gone, leaving churches that much emptier.

3. Ensure the new pope apologizes in an unprecedented, straightforward manner for the sex-abuse scandal and the cover-up. That apology should extend to every parish, since countless Catholics are still waiting for a genuine apology.

4. Pick a pope who understands that public relations can help restore credibility. The Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the world (second in America behind only the government) and administers the world's largest nonpublic school system. Most people are unaware of those phenomenal achievements - and that lack of awareness is a massive public-relations failure. It's time to tell that magnificent story and educate the world (again) on what it really means to be Catholic. Unequivocally, pride in Catholic identity leads to fuller schools.

5. Find a pope who can flex political muscle. From keeping schools open (which saves billions in taxpayer money) to fighting government health-care insurance mandates for abortion and birth control, success in the public arena occurs only when muscle is flexed. But that means playing hardball, unabashedly putting church issues front and center in elections.

6. Allow priests to marry. Consider allowing women to enter the priesthood, which would ease the resentment of many women who believe the church treats them like second-class citizens. An all-male, celibate clergy has human, not divine, origins. Forget Dan Brown conspiracy theories about Jesus being wed. Priests were married for centuries (and possibly even a pope or two), a practice halted because of property-rights issues.

If these changes don't occur, there soon won't be a Catholic Church in the traditional sense. The clock is ticking.

"Keep the faith, but fight the corruption" should be the ultimate factor in choosing the next pope. If that leader can preach a positive message, modernize without compromise, and wield a political sledgehammer, then prayers for a reinvigorated flock will be answered, keeping Christ's church alive far into the future.


Chris Freind is a freelance columnist. E-mail him at cf@freindlyfirezone.com.

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