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Liberal pope often follows a conservative: on papal succession ... and the pontiff now needed.

On papal succession...

Once again the pope's health is a matter of interest and concern, and that, in turn, raises the issue of papal succession. The Holy Father has fallen twice in recent months, breaking first his arm and then his hip. Recent reports -- especially from priests who have celebrated Mass with him in his private chapel this spring -- indicate that the pope also has Parkinson's disease.

In previous columns I have challenged the conventional wisdom that popes are usually, if not always, succeeded by carbon copies of themselves. Many people believe this to be the case because the pope appoints many, if not most, of the cardinals who will elect his successor.

However, for anyone who has studied the history of the papacy, it is clear that popes are just as likely to be succeeded by someone different from themselves in mentality and style as they are by someone cast from the same temperamental or pastoral mold.

Let's take a look at the past two centuries.

After one of the longest pontificates in history, nearly 25 years, Pope Pius VI's successor should have been a foregone conclusion. According to today's assumption, the cardinals should have selected his mirror image. But it took 14 weeks to break a stalemate among the electors, and the worldly and extravagant Pius VI was succeeded by a self-effacing Benedictine, who restored the prestige of the papacy in a reign of more than 23 years.

After so long a time in office, Pius VII should also have been succeeded by someone just like himself: relatively progressive and open to the new currents of democracy in the world.

That might have been Pius VII's personal choice, Cardinal Francesco Castiglione. But at the conclave of 1823 the cardinals wanted a break with the previous pontificate's liberal policies and a return to a more conservative approach. They chose a man who had been private secretary to the worldly Pius VI. The new pope took the name Leo XII.

History records him as one of the most reactionary popes of modern times, although he was himself a simple and devout man. After immediately replacing Pius' secretary of state with a conservative, Leo condemned toleration, reinforced the Index of Forbidden Books and the Holy Office -- now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- restored the feudal aristocracy in the Papal States, halted the growing use of laity in ecclesiastical administration, and confined Jews once again to ghettos.

When he died after five and a half years, was he succeeded by another conservative? No. His successor was the moderate Cardinal Castiglione, the candidate who had been the favorite of Pius VII. Castiglione took the name of his patron, becoming Pius VIII.

Pius VIII was succeeded by someone more like Leo XII than himself. After a 50-day conclave, the cardinals selected a fellow cardinal who had been a Camaldolese monk. He took the name Gregory XVI.

History records his pontificate as more reactionary -- literally so, that is, "in reaction against" modern developments like democracy -- than that of Leo XII. Gregory is perhaps best known for having banned trains from the Papal States. The French idiom for railway, or railroad, is chemin de fer (the way, or road, of iron). The new pope called them chemins d'enfer (the ways, or roads, of hell).

Gregory reigned for more than 15 years, plenty of time to name enough cardinals to insure a successor just like himself. But once again that was not to be.

The new pope was considered a liberal in his day because he favored administrative changes in the Papal States and sympathized with Italian national aspirations. At a two-day conclave, Pius IX was elected over the reactionary Cardinal Lambruschini.

For reasons too complex to summarize here, by the time Pius IX died, some 32 years later, he, too, was regarded as a reactionary. Was he succeeded by a carbon copy? No. Yet again, a very different kind of man was elected. As is often the case, the cardinals, even those appointed by Pius IX, thought it time for a change.

After 25 years as pope, the progressive Leo XIII was succeeded by the very conservative, even if saintly, Pius X. After 11 years, Pius X was succeeded by the progressive Benedict XV; and he, after seven and a half years, by the more conservative Pius XI; and he, 17 years later, by the more moderate but relatively austere Pius XII; and he, nearly 20 years later, by John XXIII. One gets the point. And the point bursts the balloon of the conventional assumption that popes are usually succeeded by someone just like themselves, because, after all, they appoint most of the cardinals who will elect their successor.

History teaches us that it doesn't usually happen that way. This news may encourage some and should give pause to others.

...and the pontiff now needed

Almost five years ago, I did a column on Pope Benedict XV, who is not exactly a household name among Catholics, not even among Catholics who pride themselves on their loyalty to the Holy Father. I return to the subject this week because the parallel between Benedict's time and our own has become even sharper than it was when I wrote that earlier piece.

Although best known for his well-intentioned but largely unsuccessful efforts to serve as a mediator for peace during and immediately following the First World War, Benedict's most lasting contribution as pope may have been his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, released on Nov. 1, 1914, less than two months after his election to the papacy.

The pontificate of Pius X, later canonized a saint, had just come to an end. In spite of Pius' many positive pastoral accomplishments -- he is remembered for his encouragement of frequent communion and for lowering the age of first communion to 7 -- his 11 years in the chair of Peter were marked by bitter intramural conflicts.

Pius X began his pontificate at the dawn of the 20th century, Aug. 3, 1903. It was a period of extraordinary opportunity and risk. The opportunity was one of offering leadership to a newly industrialized, more technologically advanced and more broadly educated world. The risk was one of subverting the core of Catholic faith in the course of dialogue with modern ideas and scientific developments.

Those who emphasized the opportunity more than the risk were known as modernists. Those who emphasized the risk more than the opportunity were known as integralists.

The atmosphere in the church was truly poisoned. Many scholarly works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Sixty-five propositions, labeled as modernist, were condemned in a papal decree and a subsequent encyclical. All the clergy were required to take an oath against modernism.

Worst of all, an official spy network, known in Italian as the Sapini re, was established, probably with the encouragement of the pope himself. Individual Catholics were encouraged to report on fellow Catholics whom they suspected of modernist tendencies. The expression, "delated to Rome," became commonplace.

I can recall stories told by elderly priests about their seminary classroom experiences during those years. Professors would collect student notes after each class to make certain that they had not misquoted their teachers. The professors would constantly repeat for the seminarians the points they were trying to make in their lectures, lest a perfectly orthodox statement be interpreted to be heretical. And then delation!

Various church historians have observed that Catholic scholarship was set back 50 years by the anti-intellectual spirit fostered during that period. Enter Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa, archbishop of Bologna, who had been made a cardinal only three months before his election as pope on Sept. 3, 1914. He had been elected by a largely conservative conclave even though he himself had been a close associate of the relatively progressive Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, who had served as secretary of state under Pope Leo XIII. War clouds were already gathering over Europe, and the electors were looking for an experienced diplomat to assume the leadership of the church. Benedict XV was their choice. Within two months of his election, the new pope issued Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum in which he called a halt to the civil war in the church.

There was to be no more name-calling. There was to be no more spying. There were to be no more claims that one body of Catholics was more truly Catholic than others.

"There is room for divergent opinions," he wrote, "and it is clearly the right of everyone (in the church) to express and defend his or her own opinion.

"But in such discussions no expressions should be used that might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his or her own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself or herself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with their ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline". "It is, moreover, our will," he continued, "that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations that have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided ... because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. ...

"There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism; it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic is my surname,' only let them endeavor to be in reality what they call themselves" (n. 24).

The church will need another Benedict XV in due course.
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Author:McBrien, Richard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 17, 1994
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