Job Description for the Next Pope

Historian R. Scott Appleby believes the Catholic Church must ensure the next Pope fulfills a broad range of qualifications, not least of which is the ability to redefine the Church's understanding of current issues. Specifically, three challenges will confront the next Pope, and indeed the Catholic Church. Increased secularization, "indifferent or hostile to religious faith," threatens the vitality of the Catholic Church. The next Pope will also need to acknowledge, understand, and celebrate the historical and ideological convergences between Islam and Christianity; most notably, the strong indictment of modern society and materialism the two religions share. The Church also needs to invest in research on scientific issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. In the final analysis, Appleby makes an important case for the Catholic Church to remain relevant in a complex, rapidly globalizing world. –YaleGlobal

Job Description for the Next Pope

To ensure the vitality of the Catholic Church, the successor to John Paul II must embrace science, reject globalization, reach out to the Islamic world—and brush up on economics.
R. Scott Appleby
Tuesday, February 3, 2004


TO: The College of Cardinals, Roman Catholic Church

FROM: R. Scott Appleby

RE: Selecting the Next Pope

In the 21st century, Your Eminences, the Catholic Church must vigorously address three related and pressing challenges that threaten the vitality and relevance of Christianity.

I refer, first, to a new and aggressive secularization, borne into the heart of modern societies by the dynamics of globalization. In traditional as well as developed societies, increasing materialism opens the way to a form of secularism that is indifferent or hostile to religious faith. A second critical development bearing directly upon Catholicism's future is the fierce internal contest for the soul of Islam, the great world religion that is both the Church's main rival for adherents and its potential ally against a purely materialistic concept of human development. And finally, the advent of genetic engineering and related forms of biotechnology underscores the need to upgrade dramatically Catholic education and expertise in the sciences and in bioethics.

The pontiff who succeeds His Holiness John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) must address these three challenges boldly. In some cases, the new pope will draw on the example of John Paul II, but he must also define new horizons of understanding for the Church. Unless the next pope perceives the links between these challenges and their roots in the context of a historic debate over the relevance of religion to humanity, Catholicism will be unable to provide a viable alternative to the extremes of intolerant religious militancy and the self-absorbed materialism of a global consumer society.

The Challenge of Secularism

The notion that the human experience can be understood through purely empirical and social-scientific analyses, without reference to humankind's transcendent origins and orientation, is certainly not new. The reduction of the human being to an object is the abiding temptation of the modern world; witness the degradation of life in the wars, genocides, torture chambers, and social inequalities of the 20th century. But this erroneous view of humanity has found a powerful counterpart in the robust new form of globalization that now dominates economic, political, and cultural interactions among peoples. The commodification of social relations that turns individuals into cogs in the wheels of industry and politics now shapes virtually all forms of human interaction—even religion.

For more than a century, the Catholic Church has warned against understanding humanity through concepts taken exclusively from biology, economics, and psychology. With renewed vigor since the pontificate of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Church has proclaimed that belief in the sacredness of human life is the only secure foundation for protecting human dignity. In reaffirming this cornerstone of Catholic social teaching, the next pope must display the vigor and creativity of John Paul II, who has traversed the globe proclaiming that human dignity is God's gift to every individual. Advocacy of human rights, including the crucial right of religious freedom, must remain the central message of Roman Catholicism to the world. This task is not easy: John Paul II was rebuked when he spoke out on religious freedom during a trip to India, where Hindu militants accused him of Catholic proselytism. Nor are advocates of religious freedom welcome in secular strongholds such as post-Soviet Central Asia or China, or in nations dominated by an ethno-religious majority, such as Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, or Sri Lanka. Lack of popularity or governmental disapproval never stopped Wojtyla, nor must it impede his successor.

This fundamental embrace of human dignity and human rights is the moral foundation of evangelization. In bringing Christ to those who have or have not heard the gospel, John Paul II dramatically rejected alliances with states and their coercive power. Concordats with friendly nation-states, whose friendship with the Church often came at a terrible moral and spiritual price, are a thing of the past. The next pope cannot return to a pattern of affiliation with any government. Civil society—the cradle of political self-determination and the arena for expressing human freedom in culture and religion—is the milieu within which to enact the divine mission of bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ.

The next pope must recognize that religious faith is increasingly seen as counterproductive (at best) in a world seduced by material wealth, skeptical of truth, and wary of authority. In much of Western Europe, assertions of religious identity are often met with scorn and almost willful misunderstanding (e.g., the recent spectacle of Muslim girls in France being suspect for wearing veils to school). In Iraq, Syria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, and parts of Latin America, active religious groups of all kinds have suffered intimidation or outright persecution. In the United States, conservative Christians embrace liberty and the U.S. Bill of Rights, even as they struggle with the temptation to regulate what properly belongs only to God—the consciences and moral compasses of their fellow citizens.

For the Catholic Church to gain the world but lose its soul through capitulation to free-market globalization would be disastrous. Thus, the next pope must preserve the power of religious discourse—the particularity of the Christian story, with all its scandalous affirmation of forgiveness, love of enemies, and resurrection—even while “translating” the story so that it reaches those inside and outside the Christian world. The Christian argument for human rights and equitable development must be made recognizable to financial and political leaders, especially those for whom faith appears irrelevant. Protecting human dignity and granting economic and political agency to the billions of poor people who are increasingly marginalized by globalization must be defended as sound public policy, not only as good religion.

The Challenge of Islam

“There is no compulsion in religion,” says the Koran, and the world of Islam today seeks to avoid compelling and being compelled. This reality must influence the papal selection you may soon be asked to make. Certainly, the next pope must preserve and extend the Catholic realignment inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council and advanced by John Paul II—the realignment from state to civil society, from theocracy to democracy, from religious exclusivism to religious freedom. In addition, however, the next pope must take full measure of Islam as the most powerful global rival to Christianity for the hearts and souls of millions of Africans, Asians, Europeans—and, perhaps, Americans.

The most reliable demographic projections indicate that Christianity and Islam will continue growing exponentially until the Southern Hemisphere is awash in pentecostal, charismatic, militant, and heavily supernaturalist forms of both religions. Historian Philip Jenkins foresees a world population of 2.6 billion Christians in 2025, mostly concentrated in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Islam is projected to grow at a similar rate in Africa and Asia, with Nigeria alone boasting 150 million Muslims by 2050. European-style Catholicism has long been displaced as the dominant cultural expression of Christianity that is exported globally; it is being eclipsed by new forms of piety and religious solidarity shaped in part by the encounter with Islam.

But the relationship between Islam and Christianity as the world's most powerful missionary faiths extends far beyond competition and rivalry. Christianity has much to learn from the modern experience of Islam, with its fierce resistance to certain forms of accommodation with the Enlightenment, such as the privatization of religion and the “wall of separation” between religion and the state, and its scorn for “irreligious” or “indifferent” agents of modernization. Militant Christians and Muslims alike see themselves as the only remaining challengers to the agnosticism of an increasingly secular world. According to their separate critiques, which share surprising affinities, the materialism that threatens to evacuate religion of every last trace of the transcendent is the most insidious product of globalization.

The world caught a glimpse of the potential alliance between Catholicism and Islam during the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Vatican representatives joined Muslim clerics in denouncing portions of the 20-year Programme of Action adopted by the conferees, including proposed reproductive policies that depended heavily upon birth control and abortion. Secular and religious progressives expressed fear (and disdain) at the prospect of a global culture war pitting the two great patriarchal world religions against the enlightened forces of the democratic and liberalized rich nations.

To allay such fears, the next pope must be the architect of a Christian-Muslim dialogue that fosters alternatives to policies and programs that violate the principles of Catholic social teaching. These principles include the preferential option for the poor, the sanctity of human life, and the need to formulate policies serving the common good rather than narrow interests. Muslim religious values lend themselves to this communitarian construction of society, but much work must be done by Catholic and Muslim ethicists to achieve shared visions on issues ranging from “just war” to birth control.

In fostering this dialogue, the pope must shrewdly avoid the previous mistakes of the Church in the modern world, not least the tendency of the Vatican to turn a blind eye toward fascist and authoritarian elements within its own house and in the house of its putative ally. The extremist wing of political Islam seeks coercive power and struggles to overcome what some Muslim critics have described as an idolatrous fascination with state power. The Catholic Church has been down this road. What in its religious witness and spiritual integrity has been sacrificed along the way? The next pope must articulate an answer that will resonate in the ears of devout Muslims and the cultured despisers of religion alike.

The Challenge of Science and Bioethics

The defense of human life in its sanctity and dignity, along with a rationale for Christianity as a key voice in the debate on scientific research and experimentation, must be central themes of the next pontificate.

In November 2002, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the body in charge of promoting and safeguarding Church doctrine) published a “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” addressed to Catholic bishops as well as politicians and other laity involved in public life. “[A] well-formed Christian conscience,” the document proclaimed, “does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” Issues subject to the moral law, it continued, include abortion, euthanasia, and experiments on human embryos.

Through such declarations, the Church has already placed itself squarely in the middle of a complex public debate that reaches the very core of what it means to be human and how that essence is defined through ethical choices in science and medicine. Yet, the Church must become further prepared to influence the field of bioethics. The increasing sophistication of the debate over life and death means the Church must keep pace with the science and technology whose achievements set the terms for any persuasive statement of Christian morality.

The Catholic Church is hindered by its reputation as a periodic opponent of unfettered scientific research and by its slow progress in developing its own assembly of blue-ribbon scientists working in relevant disciplines. Nor has the Church integrated the best lay Catholic ethical and scientific minds into formal Catholic teaching that engages the pressing questions posed by new technologies and scientific methods. Thus, the Church is inadequately positioned to address the ethical dilemmas posed by the advent of human cloning and other forms of genetic engineering.

Why not, then, a science education offensive by the next pope? The Galileo affair and other negative episodes still garner much attention, but the contributions of Catholic scientists, the relatively open attitude toward evolution (after initial resistance at the turn of the 20th century), and the acceptance of academic freedom can help rebuild Catholic energies and respectability in this area. Upgrading the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (an independent body within the Holy See that enjoys freedom of research in specific scientific disciplines) would also be a good start. The academy's deliberations on bioethical and related issues should be more closely integrated with the ongoing research at Catholic universities and coordinated through national Catholic agencies, such as the Boston-based National Catholic Bioethics Center. Such groups take up controversial questions such as the medical utility of fetal tissue from both abortions and miscarriages, and the ethical implications of using both kinds of tissues.

The next pope must exercise far-sighted intellectual leadership in this critical task of updating Catholic theory by scrutinizing contemporary practices and rapidly changing ethical horizons. The Church cannot afford to pontificate from a dated platform of knowledge.

Qualities of the Next Pope

In order to address these challenges, what qualities must the next pope possess? Oh, nothing more, really, than a capacious intellect formed by disciplined reading and study, not only of Catholic philosophy and theology but also of modern politics, economics, and science; a deep knowledge and personal experience of the languages, cultures, religious laws, and customs of the Islamic world; and a shrewd grasp of the state of Catholic institutions of higher education, especially a willingness to enhance their capacity to absorb new learning and insights from the world of biotechnology.

It goes without saying, good fathers, you would do well to contemplate the example of Karol Wojtyla. Because John Paul II appointed all but five of the 135 cardinals that are now eligible to vote in the next conclave, this advice may seem unnecessary; the world expects you to select a pope who follows in the footsteps of your common patron. Indeed, if no candidate readily wins two-thirds support during the first 12 or 13 days of secret balloting, you could, by majority vote, decide to select the pope by a simple majority. This would seem to favor candidates who are well known going into the conclave, that is, cardinals who have assumed a prominent leadership role in the pontificate of John Paul II.

And yet, if history suggests anything regarding papal elections, it is the preference of the papal electors for charting a new course, especially after a long pontificate. And it would be futile, not to mention theologically incorrect, to attempt to find a “replacement” for Karol Wojtyla. We can never replace the Polish pope, not even with another Polish pope, whose soul would in any case be sculpted by a different Polish Catholic reality, a reality changed forever by his predecessor. Besides, the Catholic Church does not believe in cloning.


I have placed a tall order: You must select a pope who can proclaim the gospel to secularized and religiously agnostic political leaders, economists, World Bank officials, genetic engineers, and esteemed panels of ethicists who recommend decisions on questions of life and death. You must select a pope who can preserve the Catholic Church's hard-won political independence and resist the temptation to forge alliances with secular powers. And you must select a pontiff who recognizes the affinities of Catholicism with Islam in such a way that he can avoid entrapment with extremists while forging a working alliance with moderates who, like the Catholic Church, seek to influence culture and education over the long term rather than take power directly.

Some of you possess one or more of these qualities; finding the person with a combination of them in abundance will certainly require the assistance of the Holy Spirit. You have my best wishes, in addition to my prayers.

R. Scott Appleby is professor of history and the John M. Regan Jr. director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the coauthor of, most recently, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

All contents ©2004 All rights reserved. Reprinted from the January – February 2004 issue of Foreign Policy.