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Catholicism's Conservative v. Progressive War May Be On Again - For Real

From Latin America, an early eye toward the coming Conclave, and the future of the Catholic Church after decades of fiercely conservative leadership.

Article illustrative image Partner logo All eyes on Rome

Benedict XVI’s stunning resignation announcement has triggered the expected round of speculation about who his successor could be. There is a series of names already circulating – some with a certain connection to reality, some without any logic whatsoever – and the cards begin to shuffle.

The possibility about a non-European candidate is again getting plenty of attention: a Latin American, perhaps? African? Asian?

Nevertheless, the fundamental question of substance that is starting to emerge is the following: will the cardinals, after almost 35 years of two consecutive conservative papacies, in the middle of a world that is changing at breakneck speed, decide to change the orientation of the Church and opt for someone who embodies an authentic renewal -- someone who will, at last, make it more in step with our times?

While thinking about this, we must keep in mind an event that happened not long ago. It was after the 20-year papacy of Pope Pius XII, a pontiff similar to Benedict XVI, conservative, culturally refined, closed-off, in conflict with members of the Roman Curia towards the end of his pontificate -- then, in 1958, a cardinal who didn’t appear in the forecast was elected pope, the humble and down-to-earth Giuseppe Roncalli, who took the name of John XXIII. Dubbed “the Good Pope,” not only did he conquer Catholics with his kindness, but he triggered a revolution by calling, after 90 years, a new council, Vatican II, which pulled the Church into the modern world.

There is support both for and against a pope who would bring along change. Starting with the latter: of the current body of cardinals who are under 80, and thus eligible to vote for the next pope- all were chosen by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. It is therefore safe to say that conservatives dominate the scene.

The internal backstabbing in recent years in the Vatican seems mostly between conservatives and very conservatives, different than in the years immediately after Vatican II, where the progressive and conservative Catholics faced off directly.

Out of step with the faithful

Though they gained a substantial level of popularity among the faithful, the progressives did not manage to take power positions within the ecclesiastical structure, with some minor exemptions. And thus the internal debate of ideas with the leadership was bound to fade.

As a counterpart, it is worth nothing that Joseph Ratzinger did leave some doors open for change, but now we see that they were not meant for him, but for his successor, to carry them forward. For example, he never closed the doors on the leniency, in certain circumstances, for divorced and remarried Catholics to rejoin the fold.

Recently, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, appointed last year by Benedict XVI, mentioned that homosexual couples should have some rights recognized, such as inheritance and retirement pensions.

There are other topics where the gaps between the Church leaders and the everyday practice of Catholics are very large. For example, contraception: Isn’t it time to venture further than just natural methods and to accept new modern, non-abortive ones? Wasn’t Paul VI close to doing so 40 years ago? In the end, has the time come to open up the debate on the required celibacy of the clergy? Furthermore, there is the issue of women priests. The pressure on the Catholic world to deal with these issues is growing.

Finally, we must keep in mind that in his resignation, Benedict XVI alludes to the fact that he is not strong enough to face a world of large scale transformations and challenges for the Church. Is this a prologue for the new Church to come?

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