The Papal Conclave And The Future Of The Catholic Church More than 100 Cardinals from around the world started meeting Monday at the Vatican to begin the process of choosing a new pope. This comes after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The Cardinals are tasked with choosing the man who could reshape the future of the Catholic Church.

The Papal Conclave And The Future Of The Catholic Church

The Papal Conclave And The Future Of The Catholic Church

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More than 100 Cardinals from around the world started meeting Monday at the Vatican to begin the process of choosing a new pope. This comes after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The Cardinals are tasked with choosing the man who could reshape the future of the Catholic Church.


John Allen, senior correspondent, National Catholic Reporter
Jennifer DeSilva, assistant professor of history, Ball State University


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Last week, Pope Benedict XVI officially stepped down, and today the College of Cardinals met to figure out how they'll fill the job. They're discussing how to choose a new pope and what qualities they'll seek in the church's next leader. Their choice will say a lot about the future of the Catholic Church.

So we want to hear from you this hour about the future you'd like to see. Catholics, what are you looking for in the next pope? How is the faith that you practice different from the faith that the Vatican prescribes? And can the papal conclave help bridge that gap?

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website, go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on our op-ed page, technology promises to eliminate human flaws, and we'll explore whether that's a good thing.

But first the papal conclave. We begin with John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. He joins us by phone from Rome. Welcome to the program.

JOHN ALLEN: Hi Ari, it's a treat to be here.

SHAPIRO: Well, start with the news. What happened today?

ALLEN: Well, the cardinals had the first of what are called general congregation meetings, which are the meetings they hold in the run-up to the conclave, the balloting for the next pope. These meetings include not merely the 115 cardinals under 80 who will actually cast ballots but also those who are over 80. The total is about 207. There were about 142 cardinals there today.

And these meetings are to some extent substantive, that is they're to talk about the issues facing the church and the qualities the next pope is going to need to have. Today was largely consumed with procedural stuff. The other thing this body has to do is figure out an actual date for the conclave because even though we all know it's coming, we don't know exactly when it's going to happen.

And they did not make that decision today, nor did they commit to when they're going to make that decision. So to some extent we're all still in a bit of suspense on that score.

SHAPIRO: I know one of the things they did today was take a vow of secrecy. So is that the end of the information we get from them about how this is going to play out?

ALLEN: No, actually, one of the striking things is that the last time there was a transition in the papacy, of course 2005 when John Paul died and Benedict XVI was elected, during these general congregation meetings, the cardinals made a sort of gentleman's club agreement that they weren't going to be talking to the press during that period, and that was to some extent honored more in the breach than the observance...


ALLEN: But it was nevertheless there.

SHAPIRO: A few leaks, you mean.

ALLEN: Yeah, well hey, I mean, I don't mean to shatter anybody's illusions, but the secrecy of the institution is sometimes more of a myth than a reality. In any event, this time around not only is there no deal not to talk to the press, they're actually being relatively press-friendly. For example, two of the American cardinals actually held a briefing this afternoon to talk to the press about what happened in their general congregation meeting.

So this vow of secrecy applies to not divulging the content in terms of who said what, but in terms of what the broad themes are and where things seem to be going, at this stage they seem relatively accessible in terms of their willingness to talk about that.

SHAPIRO: Talk about who's in this group. My understanding is they were all appointed by one of the last two popes.

ALLEN: Well, the 115 cardinals who are going to elect the next pope, that's absolutely right. All of them were appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Of that electoral college of 115 guys, 67 of them are Benedict XVI appointees, and the others are John Paul II guys.

SHAPIRO: And it goes without saying, you refer to these as guys. Of course they are all men. In what other ways does this group of leaders maybe not exactly reflect what the Catholic Church members around the world look like today?

ALLEN: Well, I think in at least two senses. I mean one, given that they are all John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointees, at least in secular terms, if not in terms of church politics, but in terms of normal conversation they would all be seen as relatively conservative. You know, some would be more moderate, some would be further to the right, but in that sense they don't necessarily reflect the total spread of Catholic opinion at the grass roots.

The other has to do with geography. Of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today, two-thirds of them live in the Southern Hemisphere, in the developing world. By mid-century, the projection is that will be three-quarters. However, in this College of Cardinals, two-thirds of them come from Europe and North America. So it is in a sense the exact inverse of the reality of the church on the ground.

SHAPIRO: And just briefly talk about the people that they are choosing from among - the candidates to lead the church. What do they say about the direction that the church is going right now?

ALLEN: Well, you know, these 115 cardinals have of course spent their whole lives in the church, and they have risen to the top of the food chain, so to speak. All of them have fairly strong ideas, and they aren't - they are sometimes difficult to reconcile. But my experience of talking to a number of cardinals since February 11, which is the day Benedict dropped his bombshell and announced his resignation, is that in the main there are sort of three qualities at the top of their shopping list for the next pope.

One, they want somebody who has a global vision, that is who can embrace the diverse Catholic experiences in various parts of the world, who will think not only about the situation in Boston and in Brussels but also in Buenos Aires and Bangladesh.

Second, they want somebody who has the capacity to evangelize. Now that's a technical Catholic word, but the secular equivalent of it would be a salesman. They want somebody who can move the Catholic product, so to speak, in a very competitive lifestyle marketplace.

And then third, they want a governor, there is - that is a business manager. There is a perception that the business management side of things has not been handled particularly well for the last eight years, and they want somebody who can get control of it, particularly within the bureaucracy of the Vatican itself.

SHAPIRO: John Allen in Rome, stay with us. I want to bring in another voice here. This is Jennifer DeSilva, who teaches history at Ball State University, joining us from member station WBST in Muncie, Indiana. Thanks for being with us, Jennifer.

JENNIFER DESILVA: Hello, how are you, Ari?

SHAPIRO: Fine, thanks. You recently wrote about the divide between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the laypeople within the Catholic Church. John Allen was just alluding to it. Tell us what you mean when you refer to that.

DESILVA: Well, I think it - I think in order to fully understand the divide, we have to think about the fact that this is a community of people, the Catholic Church, that has roots that are 2,000 years old and that also spans a globe that is very different, as John said, in lifestyle.

When thinking about evangelizing Catholicism, you have to include a number of communities that live in dramatically different economic or social backgrounds. And consider the fact that many of the tenets of the Catholic faith do come out of - do emerge from roots in a society that is centuries old.

And so reconciling not only the Catholic roots in history and the theology that emerges from that, as well as the people who today are trying to be Catholics and also the people who are coming to Catholicism in the areas of the world, particularly South America, Asia, as well as Africa, who are new Catholics, who are in communities that are growing in large numbers within the Catholic faith, all of this is very challenging.

SHAPIRO: Even - just in the United States, Jennifer, I recently read that the American Catholic population has stayed roughly the same because Americans who are born into Catholicism are leaving the church, but many immigrants who are Catholic are coming to the United States, keeping the population roughly in balance. It seems to say a lot, though, about the changing face of Catholicism in America.

DESILVA: I think so, yes, which does of course mean that even in the United States, you have a clergy that is changing, as well, that we have, as John alluded to, cardinals who are two-thirds European, North American, but they tend to come from a fairly homogenous background and that people in the parishes can be dramatically different, that they come from Catholic parishes that have a slightly different experience of Catholicism.

And so bridging all of these communities together is going to be quite a challenge.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a call. This is Rafael(ph) in Eugene, Oregon, my home state. Hi Rafael, welcome to the show.

RAFAEL: Hi, how are you doing?

SHAPIRO: Fine thanks, go ahead.

RAFAEL: As a practicing Catholic, you know, an American Catholic, what I'm really looking for in the next pope is to go ahead and say I have a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse. You can't preach the message of Jesus Christ and to live Christlike, with love in your heart, while the people who are supposed to be our shepherds, our priests in our parish, are sexually abusing children. It's unacceptable.

SHAPIRO: All right, Rafael, thanks for the call. And John Allen, this is a huge cloud hanging over the church. How much is it informing the papal conclave right now?

ALLEN: Honestly, Ari, I think it has an enormous impact, I mean not merely because the Catholic Church has been struggling to try to get past this cancer of the child sexual abuse crisis for the last decade. But of course even in these days, the shadow of that crisis has once again sort of loomed with the charges that were leveled against Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland, which he had initially contested but now has acknowledged, that his conduct fell below the standards of a priest, archbishop and cardinal.

And so I think that definitely weighs on the minds of the cardinals who are going to be voting in this conclave. I think they're - and based on my conversations with them, there are two things that are particularly important. One is that the next pope profile as a reformer on the crisis, that is that he strike people as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

The other, and I think the thing that is probably most important immediately, is that the next pop himself have clean hands, that is that he not be carrying any baggage himself, either in terms of suspicions about his personal conduct or potentially about his role in covering up accusations of abuse.

You know, beyond that, I think what most objective observers would say about Benedict's approach on this issue is that he moved the church forward significantly, particularly in terms of embracing a zero-tolerance policy for priests who abuse.

I think the criticism would be that there has not been a similar zero-tolerance policy for bishops who covered it up. I think most people would see that as the most important piece of unfinished business and would be waiting to see whether the next pope will move the ball on that front.

SHAPIRO: All right, let's take another call from Teresa(ph). This is - sorry, Teresa in Orlando, Florida. Hi, Teresa, go ahead.

TERESA: Yes, hello. I am what would be called a traditional Roman Catholic, strictly Latin Tridentine Mass. And I am hoping and praying to see that the new pope will restore the church to its 2,000-year-old patrimony. There are many Catholics around the world that consider that what's happened to the church since the Second Vatican Council has been a total disaster.

SHAPIRO: Interesting.

TERESA: Both in terms of vocations - loss of vocation to the priesthood, loss of vocations to the religious life, loss of practicing Catholics who many of them see no difference between the present Catholic Church and Protestantism. And I also hope that the new pope and the bishops will do the Consecration of Russia to Our Lady.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, interesting divide emerging here, and we're going to hear more about it after a short break. John Allen and Jennifer DeSilva, our guests, please stay with us. And we also want to hear from Catholics in our audience. What are you looking for in the next pope? Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. You can also email us at We're going to have more in just a minute. So stay here. I'm Ari Shapiro, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


SHAPIRO: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. The Catholic Church's leadership is in a transitional space right now, between the end of Benedict XVI's tenure and the beginning of the next pope's rule. It's a time when major church decisions come to a halt while the College of Cardinals considers possible successors.

Though they hope to name a new pope before Holy Week at the end of this month, it's rarely a simple process. One conclave in 1268 was the longest papal election in the history of Catholicism. It lasted three years and only reached its conclusion after Italian citizens seized the building the cardinals were meeting in and put them on a diet of bread and water.

Catholics, we want to hear from you today. What are you looking for in the next pope? If there's a gap between how you practice your faith and what the Vatican calls for, can the next pope help bridge that gap? Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. Or email us at Our guests are John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter; and Jennifer DeSilva, assistant professor at Ball State University.

And Jennifer, just before we went to the break, we heard from a caller who said she wants the church to return to its traditional roots, services in Latin and so on. That seems to be at odds with the American Catholicism divide that you've described. How do you respond to Catholics like her?

DESILVA: Well, I think it's an excellent - an excellent tension between how we envision the Catholic Church in terms of the experience, one that is structured in terms of the liturgical calendar and favored feast days, saints' days, the Tridentine Mass, Gregorian chant, use of Latin, the pageantry of the church, which is very welcoming and beautiful and rich and of course has a long history and is very embracing of beauty and divinity.

But there is also - I don't want to say the flip side, but there is other end of the spectrum, that what comes with this beautiful church, this historicized church, is a theology that is equally historicized and...

SHAPIRO: I heard somebody, perhaps flippantly, say recently I love the incense but not the teachings.

DESILVA: Ah. Well, I would say that that is an excellent way of characterizing modern Western society. The art, the experience, the music, even the smell, the incense, is marvelous and loved and very traditional, and we recognize it as being true religion, as being centuries-old tradition.

However, it is difficult to reconcile that with knowledge that you should fast at certain points in the liturgical calendar, with an absence of women in the clergy...


DESILVA: Contraception, all of the hot-button topics.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call, from Bill(ph) in Oakland, California. Hi, Bill, go ahead.

BILL: Hi, enjoy the show. I'm a lifelong Catholic. I grew up with the incense, and was an altar boy and whatnot. But I've gone far beyond that. And it looked - those of us who would like to see the church be sustained were encouraged by Vatican II, but that has eroded tremendously since Vatican II. And we had two very conservative popes who have, I think - it would be reasonable to expect that most of the cardinals reflect their general mentality.

SHAPIRO: So what would you like to see?

BILL: Well, the main thing, I think, is women priests. It's - for a church that preaches equality and human rights to deny the clergy to women is just appalling.

SHAPIRO: John Allen in Rome, this is a sentiment that I hear from a lot of American Catholics, but I also get a sense that there's no chance of this happening under these cardinals' watch. Is that true?

ALLEN: Well, certainly in any short-term future scenario I can envision, I don't think it's particularly realistic. I mean, you know, where we'll be 200, 300 years from now, who knows, but I think recent popes, beginning with the document that Paul VI put out in 1976 and then another document issued by John Paul II in 1993, have essentially said that the bar on women's ordination is infallible or so close to infallible that it's impossible to distinguish it from infallible teaching.

And given that, I think the bar has been raised sufficiently high that if that is ever going to give way, it's going to be a significant amount of time before it happens.

SHAPIRO: OK, thanks for the call, Bill. And John, this goes to sort of a larger question about the state of the Catholic Church right now and whether it's disconnected from contemporary American society. I was reading Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times that there is a narrative of a church in disarray. Paul Elie in the New York Times said for the Catholic Church, it has been all bad news all the time. Is that reflected inside the Vatican, where these cardinals are meeting?

ALLEN: Well, I mean first of all, Ari, I think you have to note that there is no single version of American society. I mean, you know, the Pew Forum in D.C., which is probably the best-respected think-tank on religion and public policy on the block, recently did a survey of American Catholics about their hopes for the next pope. Forty-six percent said they hope the pope would move in a more liberal direction; 51 percent said they hope the next pope would maintain the very traditional and conservative line of the previous two.

SHAPIRO: So how does the church straddle that?

ALLEN: Well, I mean, Ari, to be honest, this is why I say being pope is an impossible job.


ALLEN: I mean first of all, you know, we expect popes to be living saints. We expect them to be intellectual giants. We expect them to be political titans. We expect them to be media rock stars. We expect them to be Fortune 500 CEOs. And somehow we expect them also to satisfy the hopes and dreams of not only the 67 million Catholics in the United States, who are only six percent of the global Catholic population, but the whole 1.2 billion Catholics on the face of the planet.

I'm not sure any pope is ever going to satisfy all the aspirations and sort of tick off all the items on that job description. I think the best you can do is to try to be a kind of model of a faithful life, of somebody who is grounded in the best of the Catholic tradition, and hope somehow that you'll get the benefit of the doubt.

SHAPIRO: We have an email here from Sheila(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida, who says: Give me a man on fire with faith and a desire to ignite the spark of faith that's dimming in the Western populace.

And let's take another call, from Rosemarie(ph) in Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, go ahead.

ROSEMARIE: Hi, how are you? I love your show. I have a little bit of a dispute with the woman who said we need to stick with the old Tridentine Mass. I think we have wonderful traditions that we need to hold onto, but I also think we're an institution that needs change, just like every other major institution in the world.

We need to hold on to the past and remember it, but I think we need to move on and become more adaptable, more like the people that the church is trying to serve.

SHAPIRO: And I understand you used to be a nun. So you speak as somebody who was very much on the inside.

ROSEMARIE: Well, I was in the convent for four and a half years. I only had - I only had temporary vows. My husband is an ex-seminarian. We had our faith that we - you know, that's what really brought us together. And I have absolutely no regrets or guilt for having left the convent, nor he for having left the seminary.

We have plenty of friends who are ex-nuns, ex-priests, ex-seminarians. And we love the church. But because we love the church, we would like to see her change and be more adaptable.

SHAPIRO: How much hope do you have, that in the short term, the church can adapt in the ways that you're describing, or that it will adapt?

ROSEMARIE: Well, I was devastated to hear John Allen say 200 to 300 years.


ROSEMARIE: I think - you know, I have four children, and I only have one who's a practicing Catholic. And I'm not going to shove it down their throats. They're good, strong, Christian young adults, but the church doesn't hold a lot for them. And that breaks my heart, as somebody that sees the value in remaining a Catholic. But I'd prefer to remain a Catholic and stay inside and try to change it from the inside rather than leave.

And, you know, it is very emotional for me. It's so sad that we have to have such division in our church over issues of change. I'm - I don't know about this infallibility. That's a man - another man-made tenet that has been shoved down our throats. I don't deny that these may be holy men, but what gives them the right to make pronouncements that control other people's lives?

How do they know what God would say?

SHAPIRO: Well, thanks so much for the call, it's great to get your perspective in this.

ROSEMARIE: OK, thanks.

SHAPIRO: And Jennifer DeSilva, you know, she - the caller brings up the issue of infallibility. This is the first time in, what, roughly 600 years that a pope has stepped down. Do you think that creates a window for the kind of change that may not have been possible before?

DESILVA: I think it does, perhaps not the change that our callers are looking for. I think that we have a moment of great modernization in Benedict XVI. One that perhaps, given his reputation for being very conservative, we had never expected. Benedict has brought us very much into 2013, when even someone whose vocation comes from God, chosen by the Holy Spirit, would like to retire...

SHAPIRO: We have an email...

DESILVA: ...and that is a marvelous thing.



SHAPIRO: We have an email here from Sonya(ph) in Las Vegas who says: I'd like to see the next pope who is the one most Christlike. In order to best be relevant to the flock in the 21st century, she writes, the work of the church should be the mission of Christ - feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. I think the pope should not spend his time scolding the nuns who are doing this Christlike work.

SHAPIRO: And, John Allen in Rome, you said that the cardinals are currently discussing the qualities that the next pope should have. Well, are those qualities on the list, or if not, what are?

ALLEN: Well, I mean, Ari, remember, I said a moment ago, my read would be these 115 cardinals who are going to be voting are looking for three things: global vision, the capacity to evangelize - meaning, to attract people to the faith - and third, the capacity to govern, particularly getting the Vatican bureaucracy under control. Now, I think when they talk about a global vision, what many, many of these cardinals mean by that is in particular a recognition that the vast majority of Catholics in the world are poor.

You know, the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, two-thirds of them live in the developing world, and quite often, they come disproportionately from the lower socioeconomic strata. In India, for example, which is a growing Catholic community - there are more Catholics in India than in England, Ireland, Canada and Australia combined.


ALLEN: And 75 percent of the Catholic population in India comes from the Dalit and the tribal underclass.

SHAPIRO: The Dalit, the lowest class.

ALLEN: There is a very strong sense the next pope has to identify with the needs and the aspirations of the world's poor.

SHAPIRO: So does that make this sort of first-world conversation that we're having here on public radio in the United States of America largely irrelevant to the needs of the Vatican moving forward, Jennifer DeSilva?

DESILVA: Well, perhaps to the needs. I think that what we should recognize, though, is that the first world has an immense contribution to the public understanding of the pope and the papacy, which sometimes people argue is criticism. However, discussions like these in which we explore the needs of the papacy, the needs of Catholicism, how the next pope could pursue his vocation, his job is extremely helpful and understanding that it is a tripartite role, as John said, global vision, evangelization and business manager.

These are things that are not necessarily new, but they continue to be an issue. And, of course, we're talking about them in a very modern way, almost first-world-like or, I hesitate to say it, a business way. But these are things that connect very clearly to a Christlike understanding of one's job, one's vocation. I don't think that this is unnecessary. I think that it can inform and frequently affect in very real ways the understanding of what the pope's responsibilities are.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about the future of the Catholic Church and the selection of a new pope, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's take a call from Beth. This is Beth in Batavia, New York. Hi. Go ahead.

BETH: Hi. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak. I'm a Catholic, lifelong Catholic, and I'm a very grateful Catholic, very glad to be Catholic. I recognize that the church did not begin as a worldwide organization. It began with 12 sort of raggedy-tag, poor men who decided to follow an itinerant preacher. I believe NPR would probably characterize Christ as an itinerant preacher...


BETH: know, not an important man, not a wealthy man. And the church grew from those roots. I want the cardinals to listen to the Holy Spirit, a very real presence in the lives of Catholics. And I understand that the church might have to get smaller before it is able to progress.

SHAPIRO: Now, when you say get smaller, do you mean that some people may be alienated, some people may not want to adhere to the doctrine and that's fine, they can go elsewhere?

BETH: Well, your first caller, Rafael, said that he wanted a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse, of course, so do I. I want a zero-tolerance policy also on people who are unable to be obedient to the teachings of the church. It's not - it's led by something greater than human thought and human ideas...

SHAPIRO: Now, when you say the teachings of the church...

BETH: ...something greater than the church, as well.

SHAPIRO: When you say the teachings of the church, do you mean love, humility, et cetera, or do you mean contraception, abortion, et cetera?

BETH: The faith teachings of the church are from the Beatitudes - take care of the poor, heal - help the sick. Those are how - those are our Ten Commandments, really, in addition to the Ten Commandants given to Christ - given by Christ. But I mean the teachings of the church that have been given to the church by Christ and by the Holy Spirit. These are not - fasting on Friday is not a teaching of the church. It's a tradition. But there are teachings of the church that are important.

One of them being all life is worth - being all life is worthy of being alive. We've got to understand true teaching from tradition, and we've got to accept it if we're Catholics. I've got a zero-tolerance policy for those who don't.

SHAPIRO: Beth, I appreciate the call. Thanks very much.

BETH: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: John Allen, this is without question an inflection point for the church. Do you sense within the Vatican they also view it as a crisis point for the church as so many outside commentators have described it?

ALLEN: Well, I mean, Ari, I mean from one point of view, the church is always in crisis. I mean, this is an institution with more than 2,000 years of history, and I think if you just pick any point along that timeline at random, you could have made a case of the church was in crisis then. You know, my sense is that the cardinals who are - the 115 cardinals under 80 who are going to be filing into the Sistine Chapel in a matter of days to elect the next pope are aware that the church is facing a significant number of challenges.

Some of these challenges are internal, including the very wildly different sort of visions of the future that we have heard during this program. Some of those challenges are external; the relationship with Islam, the challenges posed to traditional Catholic populations in Latin America by the rise of evangelical and Pentecostal movement, engaging the issues of the world's poor who increasingly form a much larger share of the global Catholic footprint.

So I think they recognize that there are some very, very significant challenges there. But on their hand, I do think there is also a basic faith among them that somehow, in the kind of alchemy of the process of trying to pick a pope, they'll find someone who can lead the church to meet those challenges.

SHAPIRO: All right. And we will keep tracking that process as it unfolds in the coming days and weeks. That was John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, speaking with us from Rome. Thanks, John.

ALLEN: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We also had Jennifer DeSilva on the program. She's an assistant professor of history at Ball State University with us from member station MBST in Muncie, Indiana. Thank you, Jennifer.

DESILVA: Thank you, Ari.

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