Archive for Saturday, March 16, 2013

What kind of pope should we hope for?

March 16, 2013


On Wednesday, the conclave of cardinals elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis, the next leader of the Catholic Church. What kind of pope should we hope for? One that acknowledges and welcomes that he, the church, and its 1.2 billion adherents are living in the 21st century, immersed in a wealth of knowledge and civil law that should be honored, not denied.

First, the pope might acknowledge the Enlightenment — that explanations of how the natural world works is the province of science and reason, not dogma. Four hundred years ago, after Galileo established that the Earth orbited the sun, he was tried as a heretic, declared dangerous to the faith, forced to recant and sentenced to life imprisonment. Four hundred years later, Pope Benedict XVI “rehabilitated” Galileo — sort of. He proclaimed that Galileo peered through his telescope and saw what he saw because he “lovingly cultivated his faith and his profound religious convictions.” Really? As an astronomer, Galileo lovingly cultivated scientific reason to correct erroneous church convictions. Discoverers of essential knowledge should not have to run the gauntlet of faith to be recognized by the Vatican.

Church recognition of Charles Darwin, to date also half-baked, is not likely if he too has to pass the faith test. Darwin lost faith in 1851, eight years before he penned “The Origin of Species.” It was not because of evolution by natural selection, his simple yet most powerful idea that explains the origins, extinctions and diversification of life on Earth during the past 3-and-a-half billion years. Instead, it was the loss of his beloved daughter Annie at age 10 to scarlet fever. God-fearing or not, Darwin, like Galileo, made us humble: We were not at the center of things, either the solar system or life on Earth. Rather, humans, other animals, plants and microbes form one life, strung through history by geology and genes.

Second, the pope might acknowledge that the church in the 21st century still runs itself as the last remnant of the Roman Empire — a divine-right, absolute monarchy, deliberately cloistered from civil society and jurisprudence by centuries of institutional secrecy and its own code of canon law. Although the public and popular media might be mortified by such an assertion, historians of the church would say: “So this is news?!”

Exhibit one is the massive criminal cover-up and covert shuffling of pedophile clergy from diocese to diocese, rather than reporting them to civil authorities. This week, in the latest sordid episode, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled with four victims for $10 million. Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who, through cover-up, abetted priests’ sexual abuse for 30 years, sped from the courtroom to LAX for the flight to Rome to vote on the new pope.

Exhibit two is Bishop Richard Williamson, whose 1988 excommunication was lifted by Pope Benedict in 2009 despite Williamson proudly denying the Holocaust, stating that “not a single Jew died in a gas chamber.” Following worldwide outrage, Williamson apologized but refused to recant his views, condemning Jews as “enemies of Christ” intent on “world dominion.” The new pope might ask why it’s easier for the church to rehabilitate someone like Williamson, who denies the truth, than someone like Galileo or Darwin, who discovers it. And when the church will quit blowing black smoke — quit defaulting on its moral authority to clean its own house.

Finally, the pope might extend our moral responsibility to sustaining the life of the planet. In the new Anthropocene Era, humans have taken dominion of the Earth — its climate (hotter), its air, water and soil (more fouled), and its life support systems (more threatened). Catholic countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Equatorial Africa are home to among the largest swaths of endangered habitats and biodiversity hotspots — Amazonia, the Philippines, Congo, Gabon. Perhaps if decreed by the pope as “Catholic preserves” they might be better ministered for global benefit. In so doing, he would honor Darwin’s last sentence in “The Origin”: “There is grandeur in this view of life … having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.”

— Leonard Krishtalka is a professor and director of the Biodiversity Institute at Kansas University.


George Lippencott 5 years, 2 months ago

Peggy Noonan (Republican Pundit) shares her thoughts on the new Pope today in the WSJ at

While Dr. Krishtalka IMHO looks to the past by focusing on errors made by the church – some would even argue criminal activity – Ms. Noonan looks to the future focusing on opportunities presented by the change. I do find it interesting that a past political operative is more future oriented than a self-proclaimed future oriented academic. Go figure!

Kris Krishtalka 5 years, 2 months ago

Thanks for the dialogue. The op-ed is pointedly future-oriented: 1. learn from the mistakes of the past not to repeat them and to lead the church into the future, i.e., exercise the moral authority to clean the future Church of its criminal cover-ups and deniers of the truth; (2) let the Church be an outspoken, moral force in sustaining the planetary environments into the future---the animals, plants, microbes, oceans, lakes, rivers, and landscapes that the Church reveres as God's creation.

George Lippencott 5 years, 2 months ago

Exactly, except you could have said the same thing without rehashing old history. Some (Many) of us believe that the institution has learned from past mistakes (if they were mistakes).

Exactly what do you expect the church to learn from the pedophilia challenge of the 80"s or from the actions of an aberrant priest in the 90's? Apologies and remedial actions were taken (are being taken) for the first and the church disavowed the second.

It will be interesting how the church addresses your crusade for the environment. It is not clear that we have a good grasp as to how the poor all over will be treated as we try to reduce our footprint. Some of us see a disconnect between reducing poverty and raising the costs of most human activity.

People and institutions respond more positively to challenges without added condemnation. It is not as if the church as an institution was the only entity to make errors of that sort. The entire society has had to struggle with pedophilia and antisemitism show up in these pages on a regular basis.

Why not just wish him well.

KU_cynic 5 years, 2 months ago

LK, I agree with your sentiments but not your tone. Who are you, at this moment of renewal and hope for the more than a billion Catholics, to lecture so mean-spiritedly in a smug little essay in a small town newspaper?

jayhawklawrence 5 years, 2 months ago

Excellent letter and seems to have been written with great thoughtfulness and sincerity.

Thank you.

verity 5 years, 2 months ago

Why was my reply to tange disappeared without a trace? What rule did I disobey? I thought I was playing nice.

Not upset, just curious.

verity 5 years, 2 months ago

The Roman Catholic Church is the last very large medieval institution left.

Very authoritarian and completely male dominated.

While it may be a vehicle of good in many areas, too many in the hierarchy seek too much control of the lives of those outside the church.

In_God_we_trust 5 years, 2 months ago

I would hope that the Pope would be a man that preaches and teaches the Word of God, serving the Lord. One that is born again, with the Spirit of God, dwelling inside of him, who loves God and not the world system. One that honors God, the Holy Spirit, and the Son of God; Jesus Christ. Apt to speak God's Word with great boldness in the Holy Spirit. Strong in the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. Willing to bear one another's burdens, and so fullfill the law of Christ. For he that sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption; but he that sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap life everlasting. For all the law is fulfilled in one saying; You will love your neighbor as yourself.

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