With the announcement that Pope Benedict the XVI is resigning due to health concerns, there has been a lot of speculation in the media about what sort of changes might be in store with a new pope as well as plenty of suggestions for how the next pontiff could lead the Catholic Church in new directions. Most of this is pap and pabulum spouted by people with little understanding of the history and workings of the Catholic Church and little interest in seeing the church strengthened and reinvigorated. Their attitude can be boiled down to: wouldn’t it great if the Catholic Church thought the same way I did about the social issues that I deem important?
A notable exception to the ill informed commentary on the next pope and the future of the church is a piece it today’s WSJ called Catholics Need a Pope for the 'New Evangelization' by George Weigel. Weigel has long been one of the most authoritative and insightful voices on Catholicism and his track record of writing on the Catholic Church and its leaders mean that Catholics and others interested in what challenges lie ahead for the next pope would do well to listen to what he has to say.
So at this hinge moment, when the door is closing on the Counter-Reformation church in which every Catholic over 50 was raised, and as the door opens to the evangelical Catholicism of the future, what are the challenges facing the new pope?
Catholicism is dying in its historic heartland, Europe. The new pope must fan the frail flames of renewal that are present in European Catholicism. But he must also challenge Euro-Catholics to understand that only a robust, unapologetic proclamation of the Gospel can meet the challenge of a Christophobic public culture that increasingly regards biblical morality as irrational bigotry.
The new pope must be a vigorous defender of religious freedom throughout the world. Catholicism is under assault by the forces of jihadist Islam in a band of confrontation that runs across the globe from the west coast of Senegal to the eastern islands of Indonesia.
Christian communities in the Holy Land are under constant, often violent, pressure. In the West, religious freedom is being reduced to a mere "freedom of worship," with results like the ObamaCare Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate.
Thus the new pope must be a champion of religious freedom for all, insisting with John Paul II and Benedict XVI that there can be neither true freedom nor true democracy without religious freedom in full. That means the right of both individuals of conscience and religious communities to live their lives according to their most deeply held convictions, and the right to bring those convictions into public life without civil penalty or cultural ostracism.
This defense of religious freedom will be one string in the bow of the new pope's responsibility to nurture the rapidly growing Catholic communities in Africa, calling them to a new maturity of faith. It should also frame the new pope's approach to the People's Republic of China, where persecution of Christians is widespread. When China finally opens itself fully to the world, it will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere. Like his two immediate predecessors, the new pope should recognize that the church's future mission in China will be imperiled by any premature deal-making with the Chinese Communist regime, which would also involve an evangelical betrayal of those Chinese Christians who are making daily sacrifices for fidelity to Jesus Christ.
The ambient public culture of the West will demand that the new pope embrace some form of Catholic Lite. But that counsel of cultural conformism will have to reckon with two hard facts: Wherever Catholic Lite has been embraced in the past 40 years, as in Western Europe, the church has withered and is now dying. The liveliest parts of the Catholic world, within the United States and elsewhere, are those that have embraced the Catholic symphony of truth in full. In responding to demands that he change the unchangeable, however, the new pope will have to demonstrate that every time the Catholic Church says "No" to something—such as abortion or same-sex marriage—that "No" is based on a prior "Yes" to the truths about human dignity the church learns from the Gospel and from reason.
And that suggests a final challenge for Gregory XVII, Leo XIV, John XXIV, Clement XV, or whoever the new pope turns out to be: He must help an increasingly deracinated world—in which there may be your truth and my truth, but nothing recognizable as the truth—rediscover the linkage between faith and reason, between Jerusalem and Athens, two of the pillars of Western civilization. When those two pillars crumble, the third pillar—Rome, the Western commitment to the rule of law—crumbles as well. And the result is what Benedict XVI aptly styled the dictatorship of relativism.
What kind of man can meet these challenges? A radically converted Christian disciple who believes that Jesus Christ really is the answer to the question that is every human life. An experienced pastor with the courage to be Catholic and the winsomeness to make robust orthodoxy exciting. A leader who is not afraid to straighten out the disastrous condition of the Roman Curia, so that the Vatican bureaucracy becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization, not an impediment to it.
Those responsible for selecting the next pope definitely have their work cut out for them.