Church-state separation never seems more a reality in America than when the media begin to appraise both the qualifications for a new pope and the challenges he -- whoever "he" turns out to be -- must face.
The idea arises quickly on these occasions that the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church are choosing a chief executive like the president of General Mills or, for that matter, the president of the United States.
Thus what we need (it seems) is a genial man with obvious people skills. A spiritual Bill Clinton? We may or may not need a European. It seems to depend on whether the church needs to reflect in its supreme head the changing ethnic nature of Roman Catholicism.
We need, apparently, a forward-looking pope, as well, someone who listens keenly to the faithful as they anticipate and express their needs. Calls go out for the church to open the priesthood to women, abolish priestly celibacy and step back from the gigantic task of declaring and enforcing the Christian attitude on sexuality. This makes democracy an element in the choice.
The church needs also -- and most important of all, according to many -- a pope who will do something (just what isn't apparent), about the pedophilia scandal before it injures more young lives and undermines the church's prestige.
It's the whole sexual question again: the bodily-expression question. We leave it aside long enough to note that around the body revolves, in human terms, practically all that matters. Whatever successor of Peter deals successfully with the church's earthly postures and procedures will earn the acclaim of the world. Provided, of course, that the popular chorus has it right concerning the job of a pope and the church he leads.
If a well-wishing Episcopalian may step sidewise into the debate, half-right seems about the right way to judge current appraisals of the church's stake in who becomes pope.
The deeper realities of the faith tend not to emerge in media treatments of the church's needs. After all, if the Wall Street Journal or (less likely) Chris Matthews came out in favor of the re-spiritualization of American life, a great clamor would arise from many quarters. Religion? What in the world would that have to do with the world we live in?
Not much, according to the secular terms in which we commonly address secular needs. These needs -- knowledge, wisdom, comfort, well-being, love - commonly find themselves embedded in political action programs tailored to the amassing of votes on election day.
The spiritual realm that popes and prelates and preachers and plain people of one kind and another address -- when allowed the freedom to do so by the secular media -- is of a different character. Within it, by report, lie the ultimate destinies of human beings, whatever their race or sex.
Sex, for instance, contrary to what modern culture maintains, isn't a problem to be adjusted through legislation, regulation, court cases and so on. In religious terms -- the terms in which popes commonly traffic -- sex is an element of the human condition: sometimes abused in practice, nevertheless a reality of a keenly spiritual sort, with responsibility for practice and action owed to the God who reportedly launched the whole male-female enterprise.
The papacy's worldly critics make an irrefutable case against carelessness in sex -- as exemplified by the abuse of children at the hands of ordained men. Yet which is likelier to make a difference, defrockings and lawsuits or moral and spiritual reform based on careful explanation of the divinely based relationship between the members of both sexes?
"Divinely based" may or may not cut the mustard in a place and time seemingly self-liberated from obligations outside the purely human sphere. Thus the purely human practice of portraying popes as purely human CEOs to be credentialed and judged on their purely human traits and abilities.
Oh well, the Pope Watch ends in just weeks. Maybe then the Lord can pick up the slack.
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