Catholic columnist Ross Douthat on Wednesday said that the eventual next conclave could produce a leader in the mould of St John Paul II, and that expectations of a more retiring successor to the charismatic leadership of Francis may shift after months of global upheaval.
“I think the goal of the cardinals should be to find someone who embodies what you might call ‘dynamic orthodoxy’–which is to say what I think is at its best is what Pope John Paul II was able to embody,” Douthat said.
Douthat, who writes for the New York Times, made the remarks while participating in a panel discussion on the publication of “The Next Pope,” a forthcoming book by National Catholic Register reporter Edward Pentin. In addition to Douthat and Pentin, also at the discussion were Crux editor John Allen and historian Roberto de Mattei. The discussion was moderated by journalist Diane Montagna.
The Next Pope sketches profiles of nineteen cardinals who, according to Pentin, could be contenders to succeed Pope Francis. While there was disagreement among the panelists about the relative viability of the candidates proposed in the book, Douthat said that there is a need to elect someone who “simultaneously doesn’t leave people in serious doubt about what the Church is teaching and what it believes, but also seems to be engaged with where late modernity is going, engaged with where the world is going.”
Douthat said that while the “conventional wisdom” is that some cardinals could favor a less “charismatic leader” after Pope Francis, recent months may have shifted that perception.
“I think the conventional wisdom is that the Francis pontificate has been such an era of sort of papal activity, intense media coverage of the papacy, and sort of particular pushes for reform or change driven by the Holy Father himself, that there may be a desire among the cardinal electors in the next conclave to sort of take the temperature down a bit,” said Douthat, suggesting that this view would suggest a “more of a retiring figure, or sort of a functional figure.”
But, he said, the coronavirus and other recent global events may have altered that calculus.
“We’ve also had this moment in the Western world, and really the whole world, over the last few months with the coronavirus that’s going to have tremendous repercussions, I think, for the Church going forward. It’s going to probably, at least temporarily, accelerate the decline of the institutional Church in the West and probably therefore accelerate some of the shifts in Catholic power and influence around the world,” he said.
Douthat said that tensions inside the Church over pushes for married clergy and other reforms had largely cooled in recent months.
“In some ways it’s a calmer moment in the Church and a more fraught moment in the world than it was two years ago, and that might arguably push the cardinal electors to look anew for dynamism in certain ways and worry less about the dangers of, you know, too much dynamism, which might have been the big worry a couple of years ago,” he said.
Douthat characterized the next pope as a man willing to do “an impossible job” and model and ability to balance clarity of teaching with an ability “to be engaged with where late modernity is going, engaged with where the developing world is going and not just sort of building a bunker around the Church.”
“I think it’s hard to identify a singular figure who fits that bill,” he said.
Pentin said that the papacy had become more reflective of the Church as a global reality and the role now requires a pope “to be pretty media savvy.”
Pentin said that “the whole globalized setting” of the Church had become much more pronounced in recent decades and was increasingly reflected in the college of cardinals and would be so in the man elected as pope. “The Church, it’s always been international but that’s the greater emphasis now, and there has to be that greater awareness of the realities of the Church in every part of the world.”
“It can’t be Eurocentric anymore,” he said.
Pentin offered the final observation that predicting who the next pope would be was likely an impossible exercise. Noting that his book profiled 19 likely candidates, he said he was expecting a surprise.
“I’ve been saying that it’s 19 [candidates] but I expect the 20th will be the one that’s picked.”