Monday, April 18, 2005

Which Color Smoke?

Today as the College of Cardinals begins its conclave to select the next Pope, the sport of the day is speculation not only about the Pope himself, but about the future of the church. The "one church Catholic and universal" seems increasingly divided between the "first world" (US, Canada, and Europe) and third world Catholics, with the former seeming to wither from attrition while the latter flourishes with renewed energy. In America and Europe, increasing numbers of Catholics are Catholic in name only, with some vague reverence for family tradition, but selective adherence to actual doctrine (if they're even familiar with it), and diminishing actual attendance at church. Likewise, the corps of priests and nuns are aging with fewer young recruits to replace their ranks. Meanwhile, in Africa and Latin America, the church is strong and growing, with a fervent orthodoxy more akin to first world evangelicals than to traditional Catholics. Will the new Pope be a more liberal European, moving the church toward reclaiming its relevance in the first world? Or will the new Pope be from the third world, increasing the focus of the church on the areas where it is growing fastest? Or will the cardinals seek a middle way, someone like Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, said to be the "early favorite". Some may see in Cardinal Ratzinger a European who can still speak to the West, but with unimpeachable orthodox credentials (forged from years leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that should appeal to the third world notions on doctrine. Others may view him as the worst of both worlds, his advanced age being his only redeeming feature. (Conventional wisdom says that it's not good to be the early favorite.)

This same struggle between first world liberalism and disaffection versus third world growth and orthodoxy is also playing itself out in the Anglican church, with the recent ordination of a gay bishop by the US Episcopal Church and the blessing of same sex unions by an Episcopal diocese in Canada signifying the fault lines. The Catholic and Anglican denominations are remarkably similar in much of their tradition and doctrine, but in obvious structural ways they are quite different. The Catholic church is organized along extreme hierarchy with supreme authority vested in the Pope, while the Anglican Communion is a global federation of churches with the Archbishop of Canterbury as its first among equals and moderator in chief but with no solid authority over the other archbishops. In other words, we have strong central government in the Catholics, and a federalist government in the Anglicans. As the evolution of this liberal-orthodox struggle unfolds within these two churches, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. At this point, it is not at all clear which system will be better prepared to handle it. Either church could face a schism (either an explicit one, or just an effective one by attrition and disaffection). Either church could undergo a miraculous transformation that heals the divide. We'll just have to watch over the coming years to see which color the smoke comes out.

(Extra credit questions: Will the smoke thing actually work this time? In the previous papal elections that I can recall, despite the best of modern technology, they couldn't get the smoke to come out white or black like it's supposed to. And where is the "second world" anyway?)

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