The pope’s muffled voice
There were reports over the weekend that cardinals might tweak the rules and begin the conclave to choose Pope Benedict XVI’s successor sooner than March 15, which had been the earliest date mentioned.
That would be a blessing. Already in the American news media it’s all pope all the time, a tsunami of papal coverage, and until a new pope is named, the tide won’t quit. You’d be forgiven for concluding that he’ll actually have significant sway over Catholics in this country.
He won’t, not over the majority of them, not in any immediate sense. And it’s worth pausing, amid this hoopla, to remember that. In large parts of the Roman Catholic world, certainly in North America and Western Europe, most Catholics don’t feel any particular debt or duty to the self-appointed caretakers of their church. They don’t feel bound by the pope’s interpretation of doctrine or moral commands. And many regard him and other Vatican officials as totems, a royal family of dubious relevance, partly because these officials have often shown greater concern for the church’s reputation than for the needs, and wounds, of the people in the pews.
The blanket coverage of matters papal is deceptive, a function to some degree of habit and convenience. We in the media love the clear-cut drama of transitions. They’re easy to grasp and frame. And in the case of the Vatican, they come with majestic visual backdrops, colorfully costumed characters: a pageant extraordinaire. It looks splendid on the front page and even better on the nightly news.
We traffic in celebrities, and the pope qualifies as one. We also relish the narrative of any winner-take-all contest in which there are multiple hopefuls, murky dynamics and a familiar brand of suspense. This informs the way we approach presidential elections, focusing on the horse race. It explains all the cook-offs, the sing-offs, the analyses of the face-off between “Argo” and “Lincoln” for best picture. The papal selection process is in one sense “Top Chef” without the cooking. It’s the ecclesiastical Oscars. It fits a mold, regardless of import.
There’s import, certainly. The Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide organization with enormous financial resources; with a network of charities and agencies that provide crucial help to the downtrodden; and with parishes in which the prayerful nurture their relationship with God. And the pope is its CEO, ultimately responsible for where the money flows and for the placement and policing of its staff. The policing part matters, as the child sexual abuse crisis made agonizingly clear.
But the trend over the last half-century has been for the prayerful in this country to feel less invested in that organization, less attached to its traditions. Polls chart a decline in churchgoing among American Catholics and a robust disobedience.
A 2011 survey published in the National Catholic Reporter showed that while 73 percent of American Catholics described their belief in Jesus’ resurrection as “very important” to them, only 30 percent described the teaching authority of the Vatican that way, and only 21 percent characterized an all-male, celibate priesthood in those terms. More than 60 percent supported the ordination of women as priests.
When it comes to divorce, premarital sex, abortion and more, Catholics routinely break with the church’s edicts. Pew polling last year found that more than half of American Catholics support same-sex marriage, which church leaders vociferously oppose. This particular renunciation of church teaching travels beyond the United States. Spain, Portugal and Argentina have legalized same-sex marriage; all have populations that are more than 75 percent Catholic, at least nominally.
A Gallup poll last year showed that 82 percent of American Catholics had no qualms about birth control. Church leaders do, and during the presidential campaign they railed against President Barack Obama’s health care reform for mandating insurance coverage of contraception. He won the Catholic vote anyway.
Andrew Cuomo certainly doesn’t sweat the church’s ire the way his father did. Three decades ago Mario Cuomo felt the need for a major address at the University of Notre Dame to explain the discrepancy between his support for abortion rights and the church’s anti-abortion position. Without any such hand-wringing, his son is plotting to shore up abortion rights in New York. Andrew Cuomo also lobbied for, and signed, New York’s gay marriage law. Divorced, he lives outside of wedlock with Sandra Lee. There’s been no Notre Dame soul-baring about any of this.
Does the pope fully appreciate this drift? Every Sunday, he looks from his window onto St. Peter’s Square and sees adoring, rapt masses. Everywhere he goes, traffic parts and cameras follow him. But here in the U.S., the Catholics watching closely are fewer and fewer. They’re Christian. They’re caring. They’re moral. But they have minds and wills of their own, and no conclave will change that.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.