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Can we hope for change from a new pope?

By Colin Samundsett - posted Friday, 15 April 2005


With the Vatican about to elect a new pope, what should the world be hoping for?

We are confronted by a changing world. While there are presently troubles enough, they promise to proliferate and escalate in the future. Many of these could have been avoided or minimised, had societies chosen different paths.

If we are going to lessen distress in the years ahead, we need help from the head of a very significant portion of humanity - the incoming pope. However, there is concern that the new papal leader will follow in the style of the late John Paul II.

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One major concern relates to unrepresentative self-invested power acquired by the papal office under his reign. While his office is hardly designed on democratic principles, the opportunities for following a collegiate process with his fellow cardinals have not been pursued. Personal papal dogma has been enforced throughout his realm. So much so that it has created schism for Catholicism in the developed world. There is evidence of this in countries like Spain. Once a bastion of the faith, Spain is now a nation where about 60 per cent are beyond the reach of the church.

Unrepresentative power has progressed into the halls of international affairs, where, Pope John Paul II’s Vatican has demanded, and been given, the rights of a participating sovereign state. It has also acquired voting rights at other international forums. An example is the Cairo 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. At the same time, papal influence has been strongly directed at influencing the votes of members of the faith within the sovereign borders of their own nations. It should be eminently reasonable for the United Nations to have voting rights in papal elections. But, in the certainty of that not happening, it is critical that a future pope be vastly different from the last. Such differences are possible, as has been demonstrated historically post-Galileo.

To Galileo’s distress, the 16th century Vatican had an inflexible attitude to his scientific observations. Yet eventually, it came to accept that the earth is neither flat nor the centre of rotation for the sun and heavens. It was a gigantic leap. Beyond almost anything else, it demonstrates the possibility for change in papal attitudes. Regardless of what he may have wished, or believed, Pope John Paul II’s dictums are not set in stone.

Perhaps we can hope for an impending change, away from the papal belief in an earth of infinite environmental resources. Hopefully, the Catholic Church will accept that a continual and indefinite increase in the human population is incompatible with our survival on a depleting environmental resource. Could we hope the church might at last acknowledge humanity as an integral part of the earth’s biosphere and not as the ultimate pinnacle of evolutionary process? Or hope that papal faith in the future will be built around the structure of science, rather than an attempted denigration of good, but unpalatable, science?

Popes of the future, unlike the immediate past, will need to accept that their tolerance of others’ belief needs further broadening: beyond the boundaries of sects within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and outside the framework of the Torah, Bible, and Koran. To be able to smoothly interact with the world community, they will have to establish proper dialogue with the “heathen” world: with those multitudes who have many or different gods, or no god at all. They will have to accept that equal rights at society’s table should be earned on the basis of participants’ social decency, rather than allocated according to a bias to a creed.

There will need to be a change in the papal version of morality. No more, should sexual predation of children within the papal domain be handled “in the most secretive way … restrained by a perpetual silence”, rather than upon the needs of the victims. The cloak of obscurity must be cast aside when it impedes progress. And a proper start needs to be made to address whatever the fundamental cause of these sexual problems may be.

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An abrupt change is needed in papal attitudes to democracy. No more should there be decrees in favour of fascist regimes, when there is irrefutable evidence of dictatorial inhumanity, torture and killing. (As demonstrated in Central and Southern America where there was papal support for Pinochet’s bloody regime in Chile after it murdered the elected president, Allende; and also for the fascist guerillas who conducted murderous attacks against the elected Sandinista administration.)

But the most fundamental change required for a future pope will be in the matter of honesty and humanity regarding sexuality. No more should women be denied their reproductive rights. No more should the church actively promote unrestrained childbearing, in communities already overstressed, unable to give their numerous children the upbringing that should be their right. No more the lies told regarding condoms being ineffective against AIDS because they contain “tiny holes”.

The world needs to hope for the election of a very different style of pope.

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About the Author

Colin Samundsett has particular interests in social and environmental interaction, the spirituality of being part of a landscape upon which we depend as so intuitively described by Dr Alan Newsome in Ecomythology of the Red Kangaroo.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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