THE election of a non-European Pope (albeit of Italian extraction) is a wonderful start, but just a start nonetheless.
As a sympathetic and respectful outsider, I'm convinced that the Roman Catholic Church must do much, much more – not just for itself, but for the sake of world Christianity.
The word Roman points to part of the problem. It is absurd that so many of the 115 cardinals in the conclave last week were Italian. In Italy, as in much of Europe, the church is struggling. In many other parts of the world it is doing remarkably well, and it is all too easy to forget this in the aggressively secular context of Western Europe. The core membership is now in Africa, in Asia, in Central and South America. Europe is on the fringes.
There may be historic reasons for the church to be headquartered in Rome and run by Italians, but there are no biblical reasons. Indeed if the Papacy moved elsewhere, it would set Rome free to be what it should be: a glorious place of pilgrimage for Christians of all denominations. Right now the Vatican City taints the rest of Rome. It is not a happy or numinous place; it is beset by scandal and corruption.
If the Papacy moved to a country where the church is stronger, and more in tune with more of the population – say Mexico or Brazil, both countries which are in general facing a much brighter mid-term future than most European countries – then the Papacy itself might also be set free. The culture of the Vatican has become restrictive and excessively conservative and it has an unsavoury reputation. It is certainly not the ideal place to be the world centre of Christianity.
A great reforming council is required. If such a council were convened, its work would be best undertaken well away form Rome, and indeed well away from Europe. It would take years to address thoroughly the essential issues: should there be woman priests? Should priests be celibate? Is the current teaching on contraception appropriate? And so on. At present the Roman Catholic Church, which in so many ways I, and millions of other Protestants, admire, is a church whose members and adherents frequently and frankly ignore its teachings. That cannot continue indefinitely.
Several years ago I wrote a book about the 16th-century Reformation. When I started my researches I already knew, or thought I knew, quite a lot about the Reformation itself, but I soon realised that I knew hardly anything about the old church's magnificent response to the Reformation. This was the Counter Reformation, or as many Catholics prefer to call it, the Catholic Reformation. It did not get going properly until a generation and a half after the Reformation started but when it was at last under way it did splendid work. In some ways it achieved more than the Reformation did; to put it another way, perhaps the single greatest achievement of the Reformation was the Counter Reformation. It cleansed and seriously reformed the church from within.
Something very similar, but even bigger – and certainly bigger than the Second Vatican Council – is surely needed now.
And yet the Roman Catholic Church still coheres, just about, and it manages to hold world Christianity together, right across our planet, in a way that the reformed churches cannot. Several years ago I had a friendly and candid conversation with the late Cardinal Thomas Winning about just this: how the Catholic Church, despite all the travails and problems, and its vastness and complexity, manages somehow to hold together.
With a kind of gentle but realistic cynicism, the cardinal told me: "When we have a bunch of troublemakers, we start a new order, and put them in it.". That understanding of both the breadth and inclusiveness of a world church is very important. The church must not allow itself to become too constricted or narrow. At the same time it must have core teachings which the entire membership tries hard to respect and obey.
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