Conclave issues

I first met John Allen through one of those instant arguments that e-mail makes possible. Allen had reviewed my biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, in the National Catholic Reporter — more positively than I had expected, given the NCR’s take on the pontificate. Still, I thought Allen had missed some things. So, noting his e-mail address at the end of  the review, I shot him a message saying, in so many words, “Thanks for the kind remarks; here are the eight things you got wrong.”

Within ten minutes I had a cyber-reply saying, in so many words, “No, here are the nine things you’ve got wrong.” It was all in good humor and, as I was scheduled to speak in Kansas City, home of the NCR, in a few weeks, I e-mailed back, proposing that the argument be continued over barbecue at a K.C. eatery of Allen’s choice. He accepted and we had a fine evening, during which Allen told me that he was heading for Rome to open an NCR bureau in anticipation of the next papal election.

Over the past two years, John Allen’s Vatican reporting has probably surprised some of his paper’s readership, an integral part of the aging culture of dissent in U.S. Catholicism. In the paper, and in a weekly e-mail letter from Rome, Allen has challenged “progressive Catholic” shibboleths  more than once — even if he challenges them rather gently. He also brings to his reporting and commentary a lot of energy, a sense of fair play, and a willingness to listen to those with whom he disagrees (or whom his paper considers Neanderthals).

It seems to me, though, that John Allen temporarily shelved his willingness to go against the “progressive Catholic” grain in writing his new book, Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday). His description of the process of a papal election is useful; the problems come on the “politics and personalities” side of his subtitle. Fully half of his twenty leading papal contenders strike me as utterly implausible successors to John Paul II, and his mini-portraits of the rest of the electors, while occasionally interesting, are strangely awry at numerous points.

But where I really take issue with my friend John Allen, and what I hope to explore with him over some spaghetti carbonara before too much times passes, is on his definition of the five great “voting issues” of the next conclave. I agree on one point: the biotech revolution will pose an enormous, critical challenge to the next pontificate. But are the other four great issues for John Paul II’s successor really collegiality (the old “progressive” lust for “power-sharing,” meaning, in fact, power); ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; globalization; and “women and the laity” (a variant on “collegiality”)? I seriously doubt it.

Stripped of its more lurid features, the Crisis of 2002 in U.S. Catholicism is something of a microcosm of the post-Vatican II situation throughout the world Church. That suggests a rather different agenda of issues to be addressed during the next conclave:

Orthodoxy: What explains the crisis of fidelity that is the root of the crisis of clerical indiscipline and episcopal misgovernance? Why are too many bishops, priests, and Catholic intellectuals unable or unwilling to communicate the great adventure of orthodoxy?


Headship: Why have so many bishops lost a sense of headship, adopting a managerial rather than apostolic understanding of their office? What new criteria for selecting bishops need to be implemented?

 Human Degradation: How should the Church address the many ways in which modern culture treats human beings as artifacts, the body as a mere machine, and sex as another contact sport? John Paul II has waged a vigorous campaign against the Church’s ancient enemy, gnosticism (the heresy that the stuff of the material world, including the human body, doesn’t really count). How will that campaign continue?

Liturgy: Why, after forty years of liturgical reform, are churches emptier and Catholics less convinced of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist?

Evangelization: World Christian growth has been flat, as a percentage of world population, for a century. Now what?

Things to talk about, John. See you in Rome. Lunch is on me.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash