Now that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to resign Saint Peter's throne, the world is left to guess who will replace him as the head of the church. For many Catholics, this process is a vital component of their faith, but to most in the nonreligious community this whole procedure is just another high-office election with all the usual politicking.
The Catholic Church may not realize that the eventual winner of this ecclesiastical election will not only be a defender of the faith, but also its greatest obstacle. That's because the Catholic Church has a knack for picking leaders that say some very backwards things and choose the wrong side of public policy debates.
A driving force behind the continued growth of atheism and humanism is the massive flight from the Catholic Church (and other religious institutions). This exodus can be attributed to several factors beyond just the rejection of faith and the theological conflicts that lead many away from Catholicism. Today, there's plenty more to lead the flock astray, such as the church's promotion of homophobia, its rejection of contraception and lifesaving emergency abortions, and of course, the ongoing child rape scandal. Society's momentum toward liberalism is clearly not in the Catholic Church's favor.
For humanists, the selection of the next pope is a win-win situation. Either a more humanistic modernizing force that respects science and opposes discrimination will be elected to help bring the church into the 21st century, or a conservative traditionalist will be chosen to continue the backward prejudices and repressive tendencies that contribute so significantly to the flight from faith that is destroying organized religion. So either Catholicism is about to become more humanistic, or there's about to be lots more former Catholics coming to humanism.
And it almost goes without saying, but if the humanists can't lose, the fundamentalist Catholic core can't win either. Of course, most people can plainly see that the church has no business telling a poor family with malnourished children that they must never use condoms for fear of violating God's will, nor should gays and lesbians be subject to harassment from those they rely upon for spiritual guidance. So, such fundamentalist ideas' days are numbered if the church wishes to slow the rapid decline of the faith in Western nations. The only alternative is more of the same with a declining membership.
Instead of another right-wing Ratzinger, the church should choose a leader that will work to undue the centuries of archaic thinking that have stigmatized the Catholic Church. Such a leader would clean house on anyone responsible for sex scandals. That person would challenge the Catholic opposition to birth control and repair the faith's tenuous relationship with scientists. And rather than marginalizing the role of women and minorities in the church, this leader would focus on making the faith's leadership as diverse and open as its membership. Instead of continuing the resigning pope's war against sex, this person could spend time focusing on the good works and admirable acts of charity that many of Catholicism's devotees perform. Only such a leader could truly stem the rampant migration from Catholicism.
But this vision of a revolutionary progressive leader isn't likely to come about judging by the current conservative makeup of the church's leadership. At best they appear to be following the lead of the struggling Republican Party in the United States; instead of instigating needed change to address a diversifying constituency, they simply try to find a non-white spokesperson for their outdated ideas. But what's likely to become another missed opportunity for the Catholic Church will help humanists and freethinkers continue to grow and prosper.