Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, was once asked what he thought about the Anglican Church being the Established Church of England. He responded that an established church was a good thing because it emphasized the importance of spirituality in our lives.
So too, whether we are Catholic or not, religious or not, we should care about who is selected as the next Pope. The Pope has the platform to be a strong voice for spirituality against materialism, for care of others as opposed to self-serving egoism, for peace as opposed to war, for harmony with and stewardship of the earth as opposed to environmental degradation, for gratitude of creation as opposed to unremitting despair.
Of course, the next Pope will have to do much to show that the Church is serious about the sex scandal. Eliminating mandatory celibacy would address the lack of access to the sacraments, as Charles Reid suggests here, and it would be widely perceived as addressing the sex scandal (though it would not be presented in that way). My guess is that mandatory celibacy will not be eliminated in the short run and that the new Pope is unlikely to retreat from the traditional outmoded teachings of the Church on a variety of sexual issues.
My main hope for activity of the new Pope is that he place emphasis not on the hot button sexual issues, but on a problem that unites religious leaders, namely concern for the poor. Concern for the poor is at the heart of the Gospel, but in our country populated with “Christian” political leaders, concern for the poor is conspicuously shallow. The Republicans seem to think the poor exist because they are shiftless and lazy. Perhaps more disturbing, the Democrats do not mention the poor because the votes aren’t there. Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty is a war our citizens do not want to fight. If the Gospel teaches that we are here to serve others, the very existence of the poor is a striking example of injustice and institutional sin, of how far we as a society have fallen short.
My hope for the new Pope (and Michael Sean Winters expresses the same view in today’s Wall Street Journal) is that the Pope on his world tours include visits to sites where the poor are. Loaves and Fishes, a community kitchen for the poor (though all are welcome) in Ithaca would happily welcome the Pope and, if he said Mass, it would be well attended by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I suspect the new Pope will not be coming to Ithaca, but there are community kitchens and shelters and medical interventions and slums all over the world. The Pope could do much to dramatize the existence of the poor and more important to humanize them as well.
Michael Harrington once aroused the conscience of Americans about poverty with his book The Other America. An effort in the direction by the Pope would do even more to help the poor; it would help the positive Christian image of the Church (selling off the rich treasures in the Vatican museum could help as well); and it would send a strong message (in conjunction with other activities and addresses of the Pope) that the hedonistic, materialistic trappings of the modern world as we know it in the West are a distraction from the real meaning of our lives.