By MARY FRANCES MCCARTHY | Published January 20, 2005
Although his topic was what issues Pope John Paul II’s successor will face, George Weigel told a Washington audience that after an eight-day visit to Rome he is convinced that as the pope, who is 84 and in frail health, enters the 27th year of his pontificate he is still in full control of the papacy and his death is not imminent.
Before he talked about the next pope, Weigel examined the conclave that will elect him.
“It will be a conclave in which the legacy of John Paul II looms very large,” the scholar and author told an audience of about 200. He quoted an acquaintance who is an atheist: “In 1978, I could have cared less who the next pope would be. Now it means something to me personally.”
Because of the work done by Pope John Paul II and the influence he has had in world affairs, the conclave will not only elect a leader for the church, but also a pope for the entire world, according to Weigel.
He delivered the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s fourth annual William E. Simon Lecture in early January. He is a senior fellow at the center.
“All conclaves are by definition unprecedented,” Weigel said, but the next will be “unprecedented in a different way.”
The conclave is composed of the members of the College of Cardinals. Of its 184 current members, 120 are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote. Eleven percent are from North America, 19 percent from Latin America, 10 percent from Africa, 11 percent from Asia and 50 percent from Europe.
The conclave is not only more complex logistically, but also linguistically. For the most part, the cardinals “don’t really know each other,” Weigel said.
Although the conclave will be “complex, possibly difficult and probably lengthy,” Weigel doubts it will last too long because after a certain period of time world media will begin to report the church is in crisis trying to elect its new leader. He doubts the electors would want to have that reflect on the new pope.
“The cardinal-electors know that they will be trying to find a successor to a giant,” Weigel said. “John Paul II has quite deliberately left a lot of work for the rest of us to do.”
Although the mainstream media may think that abortion, birth control and ordaining women to the priesthood are issues to be faced by the next pontiff, Weigel said, they are not.
The three issues that will matter most are the virtual collapse of Christianity in Europe, the rise of militant Islam and the millions of questions that have been posed by the biotechnology revolution, he said.
Also to be considered are diplomacy and how the Holy See will participate in foreign affairs, he said. Unless it engages in dialogue with the rest of the world through diplomatic relations, the Holy See becomes “little more than a world council of churches,” Weigel said.
In recent years, he said, it has become evident that there have been two crises in Europe—a drop in the birth rate and a turn away from Christianity to exclusive humanism, keeping all transcendent ideas out of public life.
“The ability to jump-start the re-evangelization of Europe will be one of the qualities looked for in the next pope,” Weigel said.
Threatening not only Europe but the entire world is a band of conflict involving extremist Islam followers stretching from Senegal to East Timor, Weigel said. The next pontificate will need to “fashion a new strategic approach with Islamic interlocutors” to work toward religious tolerance.
As far as the biotech debate is concerned, Weigel said time is running short and there is a 10- to 20-year window in which to set regulations to guide technology toward healing and away from the idea of men playing God.
“Life issues are public issues, not simply matters of personal choice,” Weigel said. “The Catholic Church still believes human beings can know what is good, what is true, what is beautiful,” even if the church cannot know such truths inexhaustibly, he noted.
“There is new confidence in reason. We can know and defend certain truths,” especially the dignity of man, he added.