Peter Steinfels, a prominent Catholic commentator and a former senior religion correspondent for the New York Times, says Pope John Paul II, who died April 2, will be remembered as “a giant historical figure.” The challenges that will face his successor, however, are so widespread that a greater degree of consultation will be required to surmount them. “To ask one person in a centralized way to become the pope for the third world, for the affluent countries of the West, and for the new, post-communist countries of the East is impossible. There has to be a degree of delegation and decentralization.”
Steinfels and his wife, Margaret, are co-directors of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture. Steinfels, the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 3, 2005.
How do you evaluate the work of Pope John Paul II?
If you are giving an overall evaluation, you have to recognize him as a giant historical figure. But it is better to divide his papacy into its various aspects. I think you have to look at his impact on world events, where clearly his role in galvanizing the growing opposition to communism had an enormous impact. But when you look at his other major effort in world affairs, to get more affluent societies to reconsider their lifestyle and join in greater support for the poorer nations of the world, you have to say that he didn’t really succeed, although he was very persistent and eloquent in the pursuit.
Secondly, there were his own writings and thoughts as a theologian. That is a massive collection of often very dense material that will take a long time to filter and evaluate.
The third area is his stewardship of the institutions of the Catholic Church. By his own account, he was not a person who enjoyed running the spiritual offices and bureaucracy and so on. He wanted to consolidate the Catholic Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council [convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and continued by Pope Paul VI until its conclusion in 1965]. He did it mainly by personal charisma and his travels all over the world. To a large extent, he left running the store to other people.
Did these “other people” do a decent job?
Some of it [his management of the church bureaucracy] was a problem. He had this overall project of consolidation. His really strong critics would say it was a restoration to a stance [that existed] before the Vatican Council. But I think he was doing it in continuity with the Vatican Council. There were certain landmark events. There was a new revision of canon law that was written supposedly in light of the council. There was a catechism [a summary of religious doctrine] of the Catholic Church that was written. These were ways of taking the council’s many different ideas—some of them debatable and still open to interpretation—and trying to pin them down. Again, the critics would complain that was an effort to put a closing bracket on the council, or freeze it in some ways.
Like what, for example?
For example, the council had raised the question that a lot of Church teachings had to be recognized as reflecting the historic circumstances in which they arose and had to be rethought in contemporary terms. These were such ideas as: What is the role of the priesthood? How does authority work in the Church? How do we understand the special place of Christianity in relation to other religions?
If these questions were reopened, it could be risky. A lot of ordinary people who were not used to this kind of reconsideration took this stuff as possibly signaling that everything was up for grabs. I think that is what John Paul II and Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger, whom he appointed to oversee Church doctrine, were worried about. They were trying to pin these things down, if you will, in less open-ended terms. To some people, that was a necessary step. Other people felt that was closing off discussion too soon, that the council presented new challenges and new energies, and that we ought to pursue some of these things. The question of sexual ethics was an issue like that.
So, he did try to give his own interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, which reconsidered things. But many of its documents were compromises and they had ambiguities, and the pope wanted to give his own official interpretation of them. Meanwhile, this gets translated into appointments of people and into institutional changes. He, of course, would probably have liked to appoint bishops around the world more or less in his own model: doctrinally traditional, wanting a firm, united Church on social and economic questions, concerned about injustices, pressing for change, and very good at publicly articulating the Church’s position.
That would have been great. But, in fact, you can’t find that kind of people. So when it came right down to it, many, many of the appointments ultimately went to people who were safe and traditional in terms of Church teaching and the organization of the Church, regardless of whether they had any great skills in communicating and teaching or whether they had a commitment to social and economic change. That has created a problem. There is now a centralization of power in Rome that seems to inhibit creativity around the world, because the Church has really become a global institution. With all the different cultures, it is very hard for everything to come from Rome.
What’s an example of that?
One good example would be questions of the translations of the liturgy into world languages. In a very practical way, this shows itself in our culture in the question of gender-inclusive language. Everyone agrees that the translations of the Latin liturgy into different languages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially in English, were made rather rapidly after the Vatican Council [which called for an end to liturgy being spoken in Latin], and needed to be redone. But that whole project has been frozen. It has been the subject of extensive controversy and acrimony and still has not been resolved, because the Vatican has been unwilling to decentralize decision-making on translations to the bishops of the countries concerned. In countries in Africa and Asia, there are many different languages of which Rome can hardly claim to have a great supply of expertise.
What are the issues over the translations into English?
The biggest one of course is the question of gender-inclusive, or gender-neutral language, whether to continue to use traditional male imagery in descriptions of God, and to references to brothers and men and so on, to use language where we no longer think that saying “he” includes “she.” We want to say “they” or have some way of working around that. The American, British, and Australian bishops have wanted that to happen. There have been conservative minorities who object to that, who have gotten the ear of Rome. The fact is that, after years of progress at making new translations, the translations were all ultimately dismissed. Years of work are being redone again. The big, explosive issue is one of gender.
You and others have talked about the sharp drop in the number of priests and ways to reinvigorate the priesthood. Can you imagine a time when the Church will allow married men into the priesthood?
I think married men [as priests] is a relatively close possibility. A Church scholar I was talking to recently said he expected to see married men ordained in our lifetime. The reason that is apt to happen is that the rule against priests being married is just a disciplinary rule. It is not doctrinal. We have in the Roman Catholic Church, united with the pope, other rites from the Middle East and Eastern Europe that have married priesthoods. As far as the ordaining of women, I think it would not be so difficult to ordain women as deacons, something less than priests, because there is an ancient tradition supporting that. Ordaining women as priests would be much more difficult.
Let me give you a practical illustration of the problem. This shortage of priests is worldwide. Even in countries in Africa and Latin America, where the number of Catholics is rising, the ratios of priests to parishioners are not keeping up. What has saved the situation all over the world is the emergence of new church workers, many of whom in the United States are actually paid professionals. There are now well over 30,000 pastoral workers, lay people, with some degree of formal training, and 80 percent of them working full time in the United States. Is the Church going to recognize their status and relate them in the hierarchy to bishops and so on? Or is it all going to be ad hoc, as if the crisis in the number of priests and nuns is just going to go away, and this is just a temporary substitute?
This is a big American problem, but it is also a problem in Latin America and in Africa, where similar kinds of lay workers have been a very hopeful sign and have picked up where the declining ratios of priests have left a gap.
These people do things in parishes which priests used to do. They are directors of the religious education program, they are youth ministers, they do the liturgy. They help prepare couples for receiving the sacrament of marriage. There are now more people doing that in parishes in the United States than there are active priests. I like to make the point that in years to come, the face of the Catholic parish is not going to be the ordained priest. It is going to be the director of religious education or the parish administrator, who in more than 80 percent of the cases is going to be a woman.
Who are these people? Who is overseeing their qualifications? Where do they fit in? The truth of the matter is that Rome is very grudging about them because they see these people as rivals to the priesthood, and they are afraid that if they give them any more regular status, they will undercut both the authority of the existing priests and the appeal of priesthood to young men.
What kind of new pope would be ideal?
The first quality I would see is someone who would open up the decision-making process to more input from around the world. I think the job description of the pope is becoming virtually impossible. To ask one person in a centralized way to become the pope for the third world, for the affluent countries of the West, and for the new, post-communist countries of the East is impossible. There has to be a degree of delegation and decentralization. The Church created some institutions coming out of the Second Vatican Council to deal with this, but they have been left undeveloped.
For instance, there is a world synod [advisory council] of bishops which meets every few years to take up major issues in the church. I’ve been told by both conservative and liberal bishops that it is a real waste of time. It is set up so there is no real, open, and candid debate. Ultimately, they draw together some long shopping list, which a couple of years later the pope responds to in a way which might have nothing or very little to do with the issues raised. Now, that’s something that people once thought had promise to bring the world’s bishops into the decision-making process. Some people have even suggested that something like that could be made more permanent.
Like a Vatican senate?
Yes, something along that line—a body which, on a real, consultative basis, would not be so inhibited by the Vatican offices setting the agenda, controlling the format, and which would be seen as a body that had to be taken seriously.
So the new pope should be a good administrator who could delegate responsibilities?
Yes, there does need to be someone to tend not only to the ideas and to the personal connection with Catholics around the world, but to the working institutions of the Church. The key questions are the appointments of bishops and the relationships with the local conferences of bishops. The American conference of bishops has been weakened in this papacy. They are hesitant to take on tough problems because they are always looking over their shoulders as to how Rome will react. They could have dealt with the sex-abuse problems earlier in the mid-1990s. This [relationship with Rome] was an inhibitory element.