BRAINTREE — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, one of 11 American cardinals who will help choose the next pope, said Tuesday that the prelate chosen needs to be a sharp intellect, a capable manager, and a strong communicator who can engage the next generation of Catholics and appeal to those who have drifted from the church.
“It’s a huge responsibility and something that weighs heavily on the heart of every cardinal who is going to this conclave,” the archbishop of Boston said, speaking to reporters at the archdiocesan headquarters. “We see the challenges that the church faces today and just imagine how difficult this job is going to be. So we want to get the very best person.”
As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to step down at the end of the month, the problems confronting the church — O’Malley did not name them all — are many: a Vatican bureaucracy riddled with infighting and leaks; competition from Pentecostal churches in the Southern Hemisphere; and a worldwide sexual abuse scandal that shows no signs of tapering off.
In Europe and North America, the church is a shadow of its former self. Many young people are skeptical about religious institutions or want to see changes in the church’s positions on the role of women and homosexuality that the hierarchy cannot, or will not, deliver.
Radical changes in these areas are most certainly not in the offing. The next pope will be elected by 117 cardinals, all of whom were named by the conservative Benedict XVI or his like-minded predecessor, John Paul II.
A majority are white European men. Seven of the newest members are from Italy.
But those who study the church say history shows the next pope, whoever he is, could nevertheless transform the church, the daily lives of Catholics, and indeed world history, in ways both monumental and subtle.
“The Catholic Church is very hierarchical, so who’s the pope makes a big difference,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. “We’ve seen how John XXIII changed the life of the church by calling the Second Vatican Council, and how John Paul II changed the world through using the papacy to challenge the authority of communism in Eastern Europe.”
Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at Boston College, said Catholics everywhere will feel firsthand the new pope’s influence through the bishops he selects.
“That sets the direction for the church,” he said. “The leadership of the Catholic Church now, which focuses a lot on abortion and same-sex marriage, is a direct result of John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s interest in those issues . . . whereas the bishops in the 1980s who were appointed by Pope Paul VI focused on social justice and peacemaking.”
The power of the church hierarchy is offset by the disagreements inevitable in an institution of such enormous size; there are more than 1.2 billion baptized Catholics worldwide, Pope said.
“One big question facing the next pope is to what extent is that pope going to recognize and affirm the plurality within the church at the grass-roots level,” he said.
A pope’s potential for changing lives is not always apparent at the conclave in which he is elected, said Ernest Collamati, a religious studies professor at Regis College. John XXIII was expected to be a safe, unremarkable caretaker after the long reign of Pius XII.
O’Malley, asked about the prospect for liberalizing some church teachings, such as the prohibition on women priests, said women’s ordination is impossible; Benedict declared its prohibition an infallible teaching.
But other changes, such as allowing priests to marry, are “within the realm of possibility,” albeit unlikely.
“These are givens that we must embrace,” he said.
But O’Malley said it is critical for the next pope to continue Benedict’s efforts to explain Catholic theology to people living in contemporary secularized culture.
“He did a stunning job of presenting very difficult issues,” he said.
Even if the next pope brings no major shifts in church doctrine or liturgy, some scholars said choosing a pope from outside Europe could have a transformative effect on the church’s image, making it seem more modern and inclusive.
Philip Jenkins, a historian at Baylor University in Texas, pointed to the World Christian Database estimates that by 2025, 73 percent of the world’s Catholics will hail from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
“The problem is that if you are running any kind of big business, do you concentrate on areas of expansion, or do you shore up your home base?” he said. “The problem is that the home base in Europe is doing pretty badly, indeed, much worse than 10 years ago.”
O’Malley, who speaks fluent Spanish and has worked extensively with Hispanic communities, called the prospect of a pope from the Southern Hemisphere a “wonderful” and realistic possibility.
“I grew up in a world where we thought being Italian was a prerequisite,” O’Malley said, with a laugh. “And then all of a sudden you had a Polish pope, and then a German pope, which I think was even a greater surprise.”
Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said that if the cardinals choose a pope who is not European, they may be looking to that person to help heal some of the wounds of the church or to be a populist figure like John Paul.
“They might want to bring the church together and gather the troops, in a sense,” Butler said.
A pope from the Southern Hemisphere may offer new thinking on how to confront the encroachment of Pentecostal, charismatic, and prosperity gospel churches, which teach that spiritual improvement can bring financial well-being.
“Catholics talk a lot about suffering and enduring suffering; Pentecostals are not about suffering, they’re about winning,” she said. “This is not simply a theological question. It’s about culture.”