Charles Borromeo, the reformer coming out of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, is reported to have quipped that the council fixed the number of sacraments at seven because no man could possibly remember a list with more than seven things on it.
In that spirit, as we adjust to the news about Pope Benedict XVI retiring, let us examine seven changes the next pope should consider implementing: four reforms internal to the Roman Church, and three reforms governing external relations with other Christians.
Reform of the Roman Curia
The immediate post-announcement assessments of Benedict's papacy all had, near the top of their lists of "failures," the so-called Vatileaks "scandal" involving the thieving butler sacked for taking documents that told of possible crimes and misdemeanors in high places. I confess this whole incident bored me to tears and I found it impossible to get the least bit worked up about it because Vatican history is full of such shenanigans, but also because of my very strong fellow-feeling for the pope here.
He and I are academics (though he, doubtless, in quite a different category than I), and I strongly suspect that these administrative tasks bore him quite as much as they do me. We'd both rather be reading, researching, and writing books -- in other words, doing anything other than attending to all the tedious minutiae involved in running churches (and universities).
Nevertheless, dealing with these tiresome matters goes with the job -- or do they? The next pope must seriously ask just how much his job involves in the first place. If much of the Curia is irreformable, then perhaps he should not waste his time on it but simply abolish it. As Joseph Ratzinger himself said repeatedly in the 1960s through the 1990s, "Rome" is expected to do far too much, and many of these responsibilities are better handled at the local level. To that end, as pope he handed over some decisions to local churches, but we very much need more such decentralization in ways I detail below.
And let me here anticipate the usual reaction already from those who fear that decentralization will lead to a doctrinally diminished or more incoherent Church. May I remind you that we have reached the present unhappy state precisely in this hyper-centralized Church with a strong pope appointing all the bishops. The idea that we need more centralization to deal with the rot is sheer nonsense.
Reform of the Roman Liturgy
The most significant and wholly welcome thing Pope Benedict XVI did was his 2007 decision in Summorum Pontificio to permit wider celebration of the older form of the Mass in Latin (often misleadingly called the "Tridentine rite" and more properly called the "extraordinary form of the Roman Rite") according to the 1962 liturgical books (before the reforms ostensibly recommended by the Second Vatican Council). Summorum Pontificio cut out intervening parties, and left the decision up to local communities and their priests as to which form of the liturgy to celebrate.
His successor needs to build on this success while also overseeing further reforms in the so-called ordinary form of the Mass, over which the popes retain control and which the overwhelming majority of Catholics today continue to celebrate in most parishes. The new English translation from 2011 has been a good start, but continued attention is needed to root out the many problems still encountered.
In time, we may hope that a renewed culture of transcendence and mystery will replace the pedestrian banality one so often finds at Novus Ordo Masses. One way to ensure this new culture would be to ban the use of any music written after, say, 1950, and to ban the use of all guitars. Another would be through re-orienting the priest in the Mass so that together with the people he faces East again -- the only historically and theologically defensible orientation (recall the literal meaning of that word!). Finally, getting rid of that vulgar mob of laypeople who rush the altar and manhandle the Eucharist for no reason other than to get out of Mass as fast as possible, would be an enormous improvement.
Reform of Roman Academic Institutions
In 1990, Pope John Paul II promulgated Ex Corde Ecclesia, a document detailing what the Church expects of Catholic colleges and universities. One would think that after nearly a quarter-century, things would be a lot better. In places, much has changed for the better, but too often one still finds a lot of tiresome rubbish being openly taught or celebrated at institutions that claim to be Catholic.
Two changes are possible here. First, the pope could intervene directly with those Catholic universities that have what is called a "pontifical charter," granted directly by Rome. Charter-holding institutions could be given thirty days by the new pope to demonstrate their fidelity to the Church or else risk loss of their charter and all the rights and privileges that go with it.
In other Catholic institutions without charters and thus not directly under Roman control, the local bishops need to learn (as John Paul II was fond of saying) to "be not afraid" of a little bad press if they rebuke academics for talking rot and claiming it's divinely revealed truth. The analogy I always use with my students is the following: my father worked for Ford his whole life. If I walked into his dealership and the employees there told me "You know, Fords are complete crap. You should go down the street and buy a Nissan," then sooner or later Ford Motor Company, if it wishes to survive, has to say to those employees "Put up or shut up. Either promote and sell our products or you're fired."
The same is true for those in Catholic institutions, and the new pope should give them all 30 days to demonstrate that they are willing to teach Catholic theology or get another line of work.
Reform of Roman Religious Orders
Rome's investigation, begun under Pope Benedict XVI, of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was a welcome development, though it could have been more vigorously and widely prosecuted, and we should hope that the new pope does precisely that. For more than a generation now, too many Catholics have suffered under the woeful influence of these weedy nuns. I know because every day in my classroom I see these students whom the nuns claim to have taught. And what do these students know? They know how to make felt banners, know that the 11th commandment is "Thou Shalt Recycle," and know that "Jesus wants us to be nice to everybody."
They don't know the Bible; don't know God is a Trinity; don't know what the sacraments are; don't know why the Catholic Church teaches any of a thousand things; and certainly don't know any history. Time and again when I explain basic things that, a generation or two ago would have been commonplace among schoolchildren of 7, my twenty-something students ask me in anguished outrage "Why was I not taught any of this in twelve years of Catholic schooling?"
Full Freedom for the Eastern Churches
Few people know that the Catholic Church, while one, is also comprised of twenty-four churches: twenty-three Eastern Catholic Churches, and the one, much larger, Latin or Roman Catholic Church. These Eastern Churches (most of which started out as Eastern Orthodox and gradually became Catholic for a variety of reasons) have recovered some measure of their rightful autonomy since the council, but not all.
Too often we are still subjected to a condescending neo-colonial micromanaging from Rome, complete with absurd regulations, especially (as I note below) concerning clerical celibacy and the appointment of bishops. (Synods in, say, Ukraine, elect their own bishops who can ordain married men as priests for service in Ukraine, but Ukrainian Catholic bishops serving anywhere else are appointed, for no compelling reason at all, by the pope, and forbidden by the pope from ordaining married men -- an utterly incoherent policy. As I have argued elsewhere, there is no historical or theological justification whatsoever for the pope appointing all the world's bishops -- a newfangled system that only came into effect after 1917.)
The simplest way to deal with all this would be for the next pope to abolish the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. At a stroke, he would liberate the Eastern Catholic Churches, reduce expenses in Rome, and go a very long way towards demonstrating to the Orthodox that he is serious about unity by removing this Roman equivalent of Whitehall's old Colonial Office.
Abandonment of Chauvinism about Celibacy
I have tried telling Roman Catholics for years now that ordaining married men will under no circumstances deal with an apparent shortage of priests. The clearest evidence of this remains the Eastern Churches -- both Catholic and Orthodox -- that permit the ordination of married men. In virtually all those churches, there is a shortage of priests. Marriage is thus demonstrably no panacea.
Nevertheless, the discipline of the Roman Church today is a capricious mess: Want to ordain a married man to the priesthood for service in a Ukrainian Catholic parish? Fine, Rome says: do it in Ukraine. But the man is from Cleveland and the parish is full of immigrants in Pittsburgh? Tough. If he's a North American then he has to be celibate. That makes no sense, of course, but the absurdity is doubled when Roman bishops in North America, Australia, and Western Europe start ordaining married Anglican and Lutheran clerics to the Catholic priesthood.
This is just gross hypocrisy of the rankest kind and it must cease at once. Optional celibacy for everyone is the only coherent, defensible policy, and would demonstrate good faith to the Orthodox, with whom unity should be the next pope's highest priority. As a side benefit, optional celibacy would also shut up those most illogical and fatuous of critics who claim that celibacy somehow causes sexual abuse -- a demonstrable lie to anyone familiar with the overwhelming evidence of married teachers, married doctors, married rabbis, married Protestant pastors, and other married men who abuse children.
New Models of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction
Since Vatican II, there has been an unfinished project of creating new structures for regional governance, which could pick up the work left by those curial congregations abolished under my first point above. In the Orthodox Christian East, such regional structures go by the title of "patriarchates." Cardinal Ratzinger himself, from the 1960s, advocated the creation of such patriarchates in the Roman Church.
In 2006, in deleting the title "Patriarch of the West" from among the list of papal titles, Benedict XVI was thought to be taking the first step towards creating new regional structures. We have, admittedly, seen no other visible signs of progress on this score since then, but that is most likely a result of Benedict's being overwhelmed with other problems and running out of steam.
A new, younger pope with more energy should continue on this path, confident of this paradox: a radically centralized Church is no guarantee of strength of discipline or coherence of doctrine (as we have seen in the Roman Church for the better part of half a century); and a decentralized Church is no guarantee of disorder or incoherence -- as the radically decentralized Orthodox Churches, with nonetheless strong doctrinal coherence and conservatism, themselves make clear.
In the end, these seven changes could continue work begun by Benedict, and could end by strengthening the Church in battles that are already joined.