The papal conclave IS a political event

PopeAs the cardinals and priests filed into the Vatican for the impending conclave and new Pope-picking, a few things caught my attention in MSNBC’s coverage of the event:

  1. The organ music that they use in their commercial bumpers sounds a lot like Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves a Woman.” Which, if you think about the Church’s antiquated views on marriage, is very funny and oddly appropriate.
  2. One of the participants in the conclave complained that the media coverage of the conclave is ridiculous, saying “The media is focusing on this conclave like it’s a political convention.”

But isn’t it?

The participants in the conclave all agree that they are voting for a man that has Jesus-like qualities – a faithful follower of Christ from a small, prayerful group. But at the same time that the Pope must be a faithful disciple and pilgrim in the Catholic faith, he is also responsible for setting the agenda for 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide – and a very diverse group of Catholics at that.

Right now in the US, religious leaders are trying to reconcile their faith and religious teachings with issues like marriage equality, health care, and women’s issues. In Africa, the Church is trying to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS while still not being fans of contraceptives. In Europe, the Church is seeing a steady decline in the number of worshipers, especially among young people. In Asia, the Church clashes with government over “state approved churches” and underground ones. In South America, the Church is growing rapidly, with little representation from Latin American and Caribbean churches. And internationally, the church must deal with the sexual indiscretions of their priests and the abuse of thousands of children, as well as the lack of women allowed into Church leadership has progressives calling to allow more women to be ordained as priests and given roles in church hierarchy.

The array of issues the Catholic Church leadership must address is strikingly similar to issues that the Democratic and Republican parties had to deal with this past year. Women’s issues – most specifically, reproductive health and contraception coverage in health care – were a huge deciding factor in both national and local elections. The impact of minority voter groups continues, with Latinos being the most discussed demographic of 2012.

And just like we watched the election maps on the news networks turn red and blue, we watch a chimney spewing black smoke, waiting until the final results.

The process is highly secretive, which obviously draws in the media – there’s no way around that. And like the election, there’s no shortage of pundits and possible candidates ready to speculate about the bland white men (and a few minority priests) who could become Pope, just like pundits and news outlets speculated over the bland white men (and Marco Rubio) who could become Romney’s running mate during the “Veepstakes.”

Just like the winner of the Presidential election, whoever is chosen as Pope doesn’t have to contend solely with the issues of his country – in this case, the Vatican. He, like the President, must deal with global issues. He must decide how to keep Catholicism relevant and meaningful, while remaining true to scripture, as many of its followers are finding the mandates of the Church hierarchy increasingly antiquated and irrelevant to modern life.

Yes, choosing a new pope is an old, traditional and deeply spiritual decision for these priests to make, and the media coverage of the conclave is insane. But the decision is more political than these cardinals and priests want to admit – and the conclave’s decision will affect billions.

Doesn’t that sort of global influence warrant a little bit of media attention?

4 replies »

  1. Interesting that you left pedophilia off the list of things the Pope has to deal with, but a gay friend of mine in LA was telling me over the weekend that the church as a vehicle for those interested in sexual relations with young boys has always been an open topic in gay circles, and in fact the church is still riddled with pedophiles. I know my wife’s Catholic family wants to believe it’s all over, but he argues it’s not.

    • I completely agree, and actually just added in a line with how the Church must deal with the abuse. I didn’t originally include it not to hide the fact that priests have been abusing young children (everyone should know that and that should be addressed and rectified), but because I wanted to compare the Church to politics.

  2. First-rate summation of the issues facing the church. Too bad you’re not anchoring on CNN, cause Cuomo and Co. aren’t laying it out as succinctly as you have.