What If You Get a Bad Pope?

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If my experience in small town USA is at all representative, American Protestants are intensely curious about the closed-door proceedings that start in Rome today. Cardinals from all over the world will start the process of electing a new pope and people have questions about that. How do the elections work? Who is eligible to be pope? What will Pope Benedict XVI do now? Is there a frontrunner? And, most intriguingly: What happens if you get a bad pope?

Leave it to Protestants to ask the question experts in all things Catholic are only tiptoeing around. Phil Lawler, about as straight a shooter as you can find among the more conservative papal pundits, laments, "there isn't anyone in the College of Cardinals like Joseph Ratzinger. There isn't anyone like Karol Wojtyla, either." Lawler explains, "For nearly 35 years we have been blessed with the leadership of two towering figures, two world-class intellects. It's unrealistic to expect that trend to continue." For a silver lining, all he can muster is this: "The Church doesn't always need a great philosopher or theologian in the apostolic palace; sometimes what's needed is just a firm hand at the helm of Peter's barque. "

Maybe the Catholic Church will get that firm hand, maybe it won't. Some Catholics believe the Holy Spirit superintends the selection process. That view is not shared by, among others, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who argued in 1997, "There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked." Translation: Don't blame God for the bad popes. We did that. Said the future and once pope, "the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator...leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us." In fact, "probably the only assurance He offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined."

Ratzinger could have added that some particularly awful popes have given the Holy Spirit a run for his money. Popes did more than Martin Luther, John Calvin and King Henry VIII put together to spark the Reformation. Pontiffs have launched stupid wars and pointless persecutions. They have fathered households full of bastard children, disrupted the normal religious lives of Catholics in entire countries for wholly political reasons, and gorged themselves on the indulgences of the faithful. These are the men, critics of the Catholic Church are going to ask, invested with infallible authority?

Popes have also done heroic and necessary things. They governed Rome when it fell to pieces, mustered the manpower to fight off the Mongol invasion of Europe, championed science, campaigned against human bondage, worked to reform the Church and publicly repented for her many past crimes and misdemeanors.

And they are every one of them -- including those relatively few popes now recognized as saints -- a mixed bag. John Paul II was a striking figure who helped rid the world of Communism. He may have lived a life of heroic virtue but administrative skill wasn't one of those virtues. He proved a lousy administrator who did not do a great job addressing pedophile priest sex scandals. Benedict XVI, as close to a hand-picked successor as a pope can ever manage, was a great teacher and theologian and reformer who never wanted to be pope. He has now thrown the leadership of the Catholic Church for a loop by abdicating the papal throne.

The first pope, as we Catholics understand the office in its infancy, was Saint Peter. He was a man of rare insight and rank cowardice, identifying Jesus as the Christ and then denying him three times when threatened with reprisal. Peter was restored to grace and then some. It was his acceptance that allowed Christianity to spread from Jews to the rest of the known world. He himself went on to Rome and, unwilling to deny Jesus yet again, was martyred there. That is what all the fuss over today's conclave is about.

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