What we need in a pope

Pope Benedict XVI officially stepped down Feb. 28.
(Jonathan Twingley / For The Times)

On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to willingly step down from his position. What kind of man will the cardinals who have gathered in Rome from around the world choose to be his successor? We asked Catholics from a variety of perspectives to write about some of the qualities they would like to see in a new pope.

Sackcloth and ashes

By Sister Eileen McNerney

The first words that I would like our new pope to say are, “For the next 40 days, I will be wearing sackcloth and ashes in repentance for the sins of our church.” The horrendous scandal of sexual abuse has pained me deeply, and I know that I am not alone in how I carry this sadness. I believe that a strong symbolic gesture from our next pope could do much to heal this pain. I want him to lead us in fearlessly facing the challenges of the Catholic Church in this postmodern age, forthrightly exploring issues that might threaten to divide us. And I pray that he will always have before him the words that Jesus used in calling St. Peter, the first pope: “Do not be afraid!” The new pope will need our loyalty and our prayers, and he has mine from the start.

Sister Eileen McNerney is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange County and author of “A Story of Suffering and Hope: Lessons From Latino Youth.”

Humility and courage


By Bill Donohue

If the new pope embodies the attributes of humility and courage, he will likely succeed. Humility is important because it allows God to speak to the Holy Father; it also permits the faithful to touch the pope, both spiritually and emotionally. What we don’t need is the kind of arrogance and hubris that so many leaders exhibit. Courage is a rare quality in world leaders, but it is indispensable to success. Many people possess wisdom, but when it is not tied to courage, it fails to deliver. Being courageous means being honest; it does not mean conducting an ongoing popularity contest. Even contentious teachings can find a receptive audience when sincerity trumps politics. The content of church teachings is best left to the the pope in communion with the bishops. The laity should expect a respectful hearing. However, when the laity are divided, the voice of practicing Catholics — the ones who actually go to church — should be given preferential treatment. Chasing the malcontents is not only foolish, it risks alienating the core.

Bill Donohue is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.


By Father Gregory Boyle

It was a “homie,” a trainee at Homeboy Industries, who told me that the phrase “do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Bible. That’s “once for every day of the year,” as he put it. It’s my hope that the new pope will embrace that sentiment and swim against the current fear-based tide of the church. Today’s leadership has been too terrified to address a range of issues, including the role of women in the church, attitudes toward sexual orientation, the language of the liturgy and basic aspects of healthcare, including contraception.

We need a pope to oversee not simply a modernization of the church but its total transformation. The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini once said, “The church is 200 years behind the times.” He may have understated this. The church needs a pope who can call us to conversion and lead us to take seriously what Jesus did. We can’t just settle for the low bar of pope as media-savvy, canny Curia manager. We need a pope to usher in a new era of inclusion, the end of a sinful clericalism, and a strong sense of duty to those on society’s margins. The 1 billion faithful long for a leader who is fearless and driven, not by terror but by love.

Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is executive director and founder of Homeboy Industries and author of “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”

Inclusive generosity

By Margaret Susan Thompson

I dream of a pope who listens and appreciates that he still has a lot to learn, who trusts in the primacy of conscience and appreciates that the Holy Spirit empowers the whole body of believers, not just himself. I hope for someone who is collegial and consultative, not just with cardinals and clerics but with people in the pews (female and male) and with those outside the church. I want someone who is generous with the church’s and his own time, talent and treasure. The ideal pope would be prayerful, and inclusive in his understanding of the value of all humanity, one whose experience is primarily pastoral rather than administrative. Theologically, he would promote the richness and vitality of Catholic social teaching and advocate for implementing the spirit and substance of Vatican II. And could he be someone who loves — a person of kindness, compassion, humor and joy?

In envisioning what kind of pope would be best, I tried to practice what I preached, and reached out to friends in all walks of life. What is here represents not only my vision but ours — a pope for the people of God.

Margaret Susan Thompson is a professor of history and political science at Syracuse University.

Gender justice

By Roy Bourgeois

The Catholic Church teaches that the call to be a priest comes from God. It also says that only men can be priests. The question I’ve been asking my fellow Catholics — and would ask the next pope — is this: How can a woman’s call to priesthood — which is directly from God — be wrong? In failing to ordain women, the church is guilty of sexism, which is impossible to justify in a faith that preaches that a loving God creates everyone of equal worth. Historically the church’s leaders, looking to keep themselves — all men — in power, have said that while all people are created equal, women’s roles are separate. This argument for barring women priests reminds me of my childhood in Louisiana. I attended segregated schools and worshiped in a Catholic Church that reserved the last five pews for blacks. In my anger at the injustice being done to women, I am still filled with hope that women will be ordained, just as those segregated schools in Louisiana are now integrated

Roy Bourgeois was a Catholic priest with the Maryknoll Order for 40 years. He was dismissed from the priesthood in late 2012 after he refused to renounce his participation in an ordination ceremony for a female priest.

Continuity on female roles

By Helen M. Alvaré

The Catholic Church has been addressing at some length modern questions about women’s freedom and equality, beginning especially during Vatican II. And no popes in history have contributed more to this topic than John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with their documents titled “On the Dignity of Women,” “Letter to Women” and “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.” These interventions were necessary responses to strands of feminism that exalted paid labor over family care, insisted upon “no differences” between men and women, and claimed that sexual liberation was key to women’s freedom. John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to correct these mistakes. I would be delighted to see the next pope pick up where they left off. Today, there is a growing sense of women’s equality in more (though still not all) of the world. But there is also a growing divide between men and women. Data show less and later marriage, serious gender mistrust and continuing high rates of violence against women and usage of pornography. I would like to see the next pope address the question of men and women working together, both at home and in the world.

Helen M. Alvaré is an associate professor of law at George Mason University School of Law.

Openness and action

By Douglas W. Kmiec

The church is not a democracy, so asking what qualities I might desire in the next pope is arguably only slightly less intemperate than my offering an answer. At its best, the church inspires within each practicing Catholic a greater understanding of the love and mercy of God. This requires openness to the fullest possible understanding of human nature — female and male — as well as a respect for the different view within the church and between Catholicism and other faiths. Interfaith dialogue, especially among the Abrahamic faiths (Judaic, Christian and Islamic) is needed; interfaith action addressing sectarian hatred and persistent social inequities is overdue. John XXIII, who threw open the doors and windows of the church in a true spirit of renewal (Vatican II), John Paul II, whose winning personality challenged both the Soviet “East” and the capitalist “West,” and Benedict XVI, whose imprint is scholarly but clouded, are often compared; time to stop looking back either to praise or regret. A church careful to avoid political alliances and guided by social justice can be prayed for, but as Paul VI stated, there must be more than prayer: “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Douglas W. Kmiec is a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University and former dean at the Catholic University of America.

Missionary fervor

By George Weigel

The first requisite for any pope is that he be a radically converted disciple of Jesus Christ: a man whose faith is so compelling that it invites others to consider making friendship with Christ the center of their lives. The next requisite at this moment in the cultural history of the West is that he be skilled in challenging the assault on biblical religion that comes from an aggressively secular culture. That same man must be a vigorous defender of religious freedom for all and a passionate advocate for human dignity in a world that too often measures human beings by their utility. The church and the world also need a pope who can encourage the burgeoning new Catholic communities in Africa, who can pry open the doors of China, who can challenge Latin American Catholics to form genuine democratic cultures, who can complete reforms of the Catholic priesthood and the episcopate so that there are no more abuse crimes and scandals in the church, and who can do a thorough housecleaning and reorientation of the Roman Curia. In short, we need a missionary pope who summons the church to a life of dynamic, evangelical orthodoxy.

George Weigel is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.”

New priorities

By James Salt

Benedict’s resignation is a gesture of humility but also an opportunity to reset the priorities of the Catholic Church for generations to come. There is a crisis of leadership in Catholicism. Record numbers of Catholics, especially younger Catholics, are abandoning the faith. Why? Because it has become increasingly difficult to see the face of Jesus in the actions of our bishops.

Much like his predecessor, Benedict appointed bishops who were more interested in making political statements than humbly serving the spiritual needs of the faithful. These same bishops often prioritized issues of human sexuality, such as opposition to gay marriage and contraception, over the church’s teachings on the common good. To reverse this trend and make Catholicism a relevant spiritual force for generations to come, the next pope should listen more to the needs of the laity, have a more inclusive attitude toward women and gays, and be more rooted in the social justice teachings of Jesus. As they enter the conclave, the College of Cardinals should show the same wisdom of Pope Benedict and acknowledge it’s time for a change.

James Salt is executive director of the Washington-based Catholics United.

Simplicity and outreach

By John Gehring

A new pope is unlikely to overturn church teaching against contraception, gay marriage or women’s ordination. But the next heir to St. Peter could send a powerful message to the world’s 1 billion Catholics by claiming less infallibility, listening more to ordinary Catholics and toning down the ostentatious style of a Vatican culture still resembling a Renaissance court. Imagine a pope who held monthly dialogues with lay Catholics and overworked pastors who live out Gospel values from the barrios of East Los Angeles to rural villages in Kenya. Instead of silencing theologians and nuns, a pope could make it known that discussion and debate are signs of a vibrant faith. If the possibility of female clergy is unlikely for now, the pope could at least do more to empower Catholic women, who already distinguish themselves as leaders. Gay and lesbian Catholics who love their church but often feel marginalized should be made to feel more welcome. Finally, a new pope might consider ditching those regal fashions — no more velvet red capes and Prada shoes — and take a cue from the simplicity of Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi. Neither had a princely residence or even a Popemobile, but their spirit and humility sparked a revolution that still lives today.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington.

Honesty and dialogue

By Andrew Cusack

Benedict XVI had a keen eye on preserving the tradition of the church. He made it his mission to restore beauty and dignity to the liturgy. He also built alliances with groups of Jews, Muslims and secularists who believe in the importance of the Western tradition of ethics and its notion of the human person. There is even a growing school of “Ratzingerian Marxists” who find much value in his “anthropological vision.” Whomever the cardinals choose, this honest dialogue must continue.

Typical of that dialogue was Benedict’s respectful attitude toward young people. He treated us as responsible and capable individuals. Trained as we are by the world to think that every whim is worth giving in to, it was refreshing to hear the pope remind us we are called to something higher, bridging the gap between the everyday and the eternal. The very word “pontiff” means “bridge builder.” The next pope must continue Benedict’s work of building bridges — between Christians and non-Christians, between the past and the present, and ultimately between God and man.

Andrew Cusack writes and blogs from London.