With the death of Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church–the largest and wealthiest religious institution in the world–stands at a critical crossroads. In a conclave beginning on April 18, its College of Cardinals will elect a new pope, an individual who could reshape the Church for generations to come. So as crowds gather outside the Vatican in the wait for white smoke, progressive Catholics in the United States are clinging to the hope that the new pontificate will bring with it an era of positive social change.
“I think like all institutions the Catholic Church has to come into line with the historical realities and the social changes of the last twenty-five years,” says Dave Robinson, executive director of PAX Christi USA, the national Catholic peace and justice group. To that end, many progressive Catholics would like to see the Church re-evaluate and redefine its positions on dozens of issues, from contraception and homosexuality to abortion and globalization. However, nearly all of those specific issues revolve around at least one of three broader areas of concern: the leadership structure of the Church itself, discrimination and economic injustice.
In recent years, progressive Catholics have become increasingly critical of the church’s leadership structure, assailing it as pyramid-shaped and monarchical rather than circular and democratic. Indeed, Pope John Paul II and the Roman Curia made many of their most consequential decisions, such as refusing to support certain AIDS-prevention programs because they promoted the use of condoms, with little input from clergy and laity attuned to the realities on the ground. This centralization of authority, progressives argue, is a trend ripe for reversal.
“I’m hoping we will move into a new Church in which the next Pope does not have a top-down, dictator-type style of leadership,” says Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, longtime activist and founder of the movement to close the US Army’s School of the Americas. Bourgeois favors “more of a shared experience of the faith,” with the Church welcoming a wide variety of theological approaches and social perspectives.
Dr. Mary E. Hunt, a Catholic theologian and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), argues for a complete overhaul of the church’s leadership framework. “I think instead of talking about a new pope, we should talk about a papal team,” Hunt says. “If the papacy is meant to be a symbol of unity and not a person of authority, then what it should be is an international, interracial, mixed-gender, intergenerational team that brings a range of voices into the conversation.”
Such a diverse set-up, Hunt contends, would much more accurately reflect the church’s global composition, and thereby better connect the Vatican to communities around the world. Moreover, a new power structure would likely open debate on issues previously closed for discussion, thus serving as a bridge toward a more modern and progressive Catholic Church. As Hunt points out, “Until the church changes its model, the rest is going to be pretty much cosmetic.”