La. religious leaders discuss impact of papal vacancy

As the College of Cardinals prepares to pick a successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the first pope in 600 years to resign the papacy, selected Louisiana religious leaders and scholars were saying no matter the outcome of the process, it will have little effect on the day-to-day lives of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

Benedict formally stepped down Thursday, ending an eight-year pontificate full of turmoil and scandal. The turbulence included the recent resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, of Scotland, amid allegations of inappropriate behavior, the child sexual abuse scandal and internal corruption following revelations in documents released by Benedict’s former butler.

Benedict’s resignation set in motion an unprecedented chain of events leading to the selection of a new pope to succeed a former pope who is still living.

The next pope chosen by the College of Cardinals will emerge from a crowded field without a legitimate frontrunner. The Rev. Paul Counce, pastor of St. Joseph’s Cathedral on North Street and judicial vicar of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said Friday whoever emerges will not be able to make sweeping changes to the church overnight.

“He is powerless to change any divine law or divine rules, anything that God says he cannot change,” Counce said. “Over time, he could be very influential.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond, of New Orleans, echoed Counce’s assertion.

“It’s not like he comes into office and begins to change our teaching or begins to change our tradition, he doesn’t do that,” Aymond said.

When the cardinals begin their conclave, which has not been scheduled yet, the process could last a while, Counce said.

“The most unusual thing about it is that the electors are locked up, the word ‘conclave’ (means) ‘with a key,’ until they get the job done,” Counce said.

Counce said that during the 20th century, no conclave lasted more than four days, but in the Middle Ages, one conclave lasted three years.

“No TV, no radio, no cellphones, no phones, no newspapers, no nothing until they elect a pope.” Counce added

The next pope, Counce thinks, will be someone a little more outgoing, animated and expressive than Benedict.

“They don’t want another faceless bureaucrat that looks like somebody who was a Russian Politburo member,” Counce said.

Pope Benedict, Counce added, “was an academic, he was a university professor and he was 78 years old when he was elected. He was not a rock star, couldn’t be. Gentle, gentle, kind, sweet guy, brilliant mind, but he couldn’t dance with Justin Beiber.”

Counce said he thinks the new pope will be in his late 60s, early 70s, considered young for a pope, and could be either black or someone from a Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking nation.

The chances of any of the American contenders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of New York, who he called “sort of the Teddy Roosevelt of the American bishops, just a back-slapping good ol’ guy,” becoming pope are extremely slim, Counce said.

Michael Pasquier, a religious studies professor at LSU, went a step further when discussing Dolan’s chances.

“I think it’s so unlikely, you might just say zero percent,” Pasquier said.

He said the most well-known American cardinals are too controversial, which makes them well known, but hurts their chances with the other cardinals.

A major myth among Catholics in America is that the American Catholic Church is a superpower, just like the United States, which Pasquier said it is not.

Only 11 percent of the world’s Catholic population resides in the United States, another obstacle to the election of an American pope, Pasquier said.

Another myth surrounding the church and the papal selection process is that the College of Cardinals will enter the conclave as humble monks waiting for the Holy Spirit to guide their voting.

“That’s not how it happens,” Pasquier said dryly. “Priests, bishops, cardinals and popes are all men who are susceptible to the same kinds of stresses, the same kinds of questions, the same kinds of needs as it relates to, in this case, power. This is an extremely powerful position and they all know that.”

Pasquier said Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, between them selected all 115 cardinals who will vote in this papal election. John Paul and Benedict chose cardinals who held similar conservative beliefs and ideals that Catholicism is an unchanging institution and should not change as it relates to the world around it.

Based on that point of view, Pasquier said, he believes that radical changes will not be in the offing under the next pope.

“I think there will be more continuity than change,” he said.

Pasquier said that while Catholics around the world will characterize Benedict’s decision to step down as “an act of humility,” the move is representative of the pressure and constant scrutiny the pope’s office receives in today’s social media and hyper-media environment that led to scandal and turmoil.

“A lot of things came out during his tenure as pope, but these problems have been occurring for decades,” Pasquier said.

Benedict’s role in the coming months and years is unknown in this unprecedented situation, but Aymond said he would be surprised if the public ever sees Benedict again, even as an adviser for the new pope.

“I think if asked, he would certainly give his insight, but he would certainly not interfere” with the new pope and his authority, Aymond said.

A vital trait the new pope must have is the ability to read the signs and tea leaves of the changing world, which Aymond said he believes Benedict did well, and adapt and evolve church policies with respect to the gospel and traditions of the church.

“I think those qualities — being holy, a good teacher, a collaborative person and a person who can read the signs — I think that’s what we saw in Jesus,” Aymond said. “The pope is not perfect, he has his own weaknesses and sins like everybody else, but these are the qualities we would need for a man to lead us and be our shepherd.”