The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has led to a mad scramble among journalists for the history of the papacy. The other day on a dzMM radio talk show, I heard the commentators talking about a legendary woman pope, Joan.
I am relieved we don’t have conspiracy theories around Pope Benedict, at least not yet. Almost 35 years after the death of Pope John Paul I, whose reign of 33 days is the shortest in the whole history of the papacy, there are still people who believe he was murdered, supposedly because he was too liberal.
What we do have is a lot of speculation around the papabili, the papal possibilities. The British newspaper Guardian even has figures on who is getting the biggest number of bets among London’s bookmakers. (Bookmakers are people who take bets for various events, mainly sporting, but the selection of a new pope seems to have become another sport.) While our own Cardinal Luis Tagle has not quite made it among London’s bookmakers, there are calls to pray that we will get a Filipino pope.
That’s for people who still believe popes are selected through divine intervention. I am more inclined to a secular comparison, the mystery around the selection of a pope all too similar to the way the Chinese Communist Party selects its Politburo, with decisions made at the top by an elite group of elderly men, and Byzantine power wrangling that has defied the most astute of China-watchers.
James Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University, is known for his work on “hidden transcripts,” proposing that the rumors and conspiracy theories are more intense among disempowered people. It’s not surprising that it is in more totalitarian societies (and organizations) that rumors are rampant, but Scott also observes that the hidden transcripts can be forms of empowerment, too—for example, people speaking of suppressed aspirations.
The current speculation around the next pope does have elements of the hidden transcripts. It’s not surprising that so much of the papabili discussions (and betting, yes) revolves around the possibilities of a pope from developing countries, rather than another one from Europe. The hidden transcript here is: Hey, it’s about time we got a pope from the countries with the largest numbers of Catholics, and that’s in the South, which is also producing more missionaries now than Europe and North America.
The names that have appeared on top of these Third World papabili are mainly from Latin America and Africa, reflecting again the very human dynamics that are at work. The Philippines may have many Catholics, but we are still part of Asia, which as a continent is much weaker in terms of Catholics compared to the two continents I mentioned.
Crisis and challenge
The Vatican and the papacy are important for the future of not just Catholicism but of Christianity, but I strongly feel, too, that we should be looking at how local churches will shape the future, in the way they respond to challenges and crises.
The challenges vary from one country to another. In many western countries, the crisis of Catholicism is closely tied to the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. This has not been the case in the Philippines. Instead, the struggles have been around family planning and reproductive health, with other issues on the horizon, such as divorce.
The local debates may start out as hidden transcripts, going into a slow boil and then erupting into public consciousness as media coverage steps in. The discussions around family planning in the Philippines have been going on since the 1970s but it was not until the reproductive health bill was proposed that we saw such furious and antagonistic debates, with both camps citing their own interpretations of Catholic doctrine.
In the years to come, regardless of who becomes the next pope, we will see more changes in Catholic thinking spurred by developments in science and medicine and in governance and state policy. The triggers will sometimes be unexpected. In Germany, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, who is known to be a conservative, has called for a reconsideration of emergency contraception for rape victims after two Catholic hospitals refused to give such medication to a rape victim. Emergency contraception involves high doses of hormones, similar to regular contraception. The cardinal said he was convinced by the medical evidence that these pills only prevent ovulation and fertilization and are therefore not abortifacients, which is what other conservative Catholic groups (including those in the Philippines) have been claiming. Meisner did qualify that while these pills should be allowed for rape victims, they still cannot be permitted for married couples.
In other cases, the challenges will emerge as more and more people have to respond to personal issues, in planning our families, in dealing with end-of-life issues. Do we allow the doctors to resuscitate a loved one whose vital functions are almost all gone? Will a childless couple get in vitro fertilization, which the Catholic Church still forbids? What does “hate the sin, love the sinner” mean when you find out you’re married to a gay man, or have a daughter who is lesbian?
The Vatican (and the pope) does watch the local churches, sometimes reining in or threatening sanctions on individuals or groups that seem to be drifting from doctrinal orthodoxy, as it has been doing with a group of Catholic nuns in the United States perceived to be too liberal on social issues.
Some of the debates can be quite esoteric, such as the correctness of translations for the liturgy. Conservative Catholics in the West look at their half-full (or half-empty) churches but argue that at least these are Catholics of conviction, rather than convention.
In the meantime, in countries like the Philippines, Catholicism is a matter of convention rather than conviction, and we cannot fault people for that. The Santo Papa is distant, to be revered, even to be the object of adulation when he does visit the Philippines. But in times of need and crisis, and there are many such times, the Filipino Catholic will still fall back on appeals to the saints, joining the crowds for the Nazarene and the Mahal na Virgen, crying to the heavens, hoping to be heard.
If the Church in the Philippines is to have an impact on the world, it will not be through a Pinoy pope, but in the way we build our communities here, now.
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