By Greg Craven* |The Australian | March 06, 2013 12:00AM
ROME- The Pope’s farewell last Wednesday was far more than an occasion for the display of public affection. Yes, it was emotional. People love Benedict and were sorry to witness his farewell. But the overwhelming feeling running through the crowd was not sadness or regret, but an almost physical sense of vast purpose. This was not the end of a papacy, let alone the papacy, but the first vital step in its multi-millennial continuation.
It was a telling reflection of the climate for the coming conclave, and a pointer to considerations that may influence that event. There was a sense, as 150,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Square to receive the abdication blessing, not that the Church was adrift, but that a brisk and focused wind might usefully fill the sails, and a hint of change in the weather. If the cardinals feel the same next week, the implications are profound. It will mean that as well as being a great teacher and inspiring leader – near givens – the next pope will need deep capacities of governance.
In the leviathan entity that succeeded the Roman Empire, that involves the capacity to pick and oversee those who govern well and to ordain and maintain systems that ensure no other result is possible. If this is right, supposed front-runners such as cardinals Angelo Scola of Milan and Marc Ouellet of Quebec – and all the candidates – will be assessed against such capacities.
The background to this is that, contrary to the hopes of some, the decision is not being made by a Church “in crisis”. The Church has absorbed the first papal abdication in seven centuries, and moved on. The entity that survived Nero, Attila and Christopher Hitchens has already processed the exit of Joseph Ratzinger. Indeed, the papal election already looks set to challenge a whole variety of assumptions shared by the side-eddy of Western secularism comprising much of Australia’s media.
The first will be that trying to fit the “politics” of a papal conclave into the sad repertoire of Australian public analysis, with its “media cycles” and “back downs”, is like critiquing Leonardo against a Dulux paint chart. This decision is dauntingly complex and historic. It does not recognise crayon labels such as “left”, “right” or “scumbag”.
We have already seen Australian journalists resorting to “The Vatican for Dummies” to paint Cardinal George Pell’s comments on the future risks of papal abdication as an “attack” on Benedict XVI. In fact, the outgoing pope would have pondered exactly such considerations.
The entity that survived Nero, Attila and Christopher Hitchens has already processed the exit of Joseph Ratzinger.
That this is not an election directed by The Guardian or the ABC was cruelly emphasised at Wednesday’s blessing. The problem with the universal Church is that it really is universal, and the West – even its inner-city sophisticates sighing for an Obama pope – are only one self-important part of it. The inconvenient facts are that the Church already had its first African head in Victor I in AD183. And that African cardinals not only disdain the programs of Chicago Democrats, but typically are a good deal punchier than their unfashionable Western equivalents.
All this simply illustrates that electing the Vicar of Christ on Earth is not the same as the Labor Party succession. It is not about politics or policy. Like it or not, to Catholics this is about truth.
Thus, there will be no “liberal pope” who stands on a carefully crafted platform of abortion, same-sex marriage or any other individual position just as there is no such thing as a “liberal cardinal”. There cannot even be a “platform”, liberal or conservative, in the sense of a bundle of ideas individually tailored to appeal.
There are only cardinals who are Catholics, sworn to preserve the same truth. There can be differences of emphasis and expression, but the thing about truth – once ascertained – is that it is neither personal nor negotiable. Cardinals Peter Turkson of Ghana, Timothy Dolan of the US and Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy are co-believers, not rival candidates. Rome is not Rooty Hill.
*Greg Craven is vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University. He is on a sabbatical in Rome.