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.”