As the College of Cardinals slinks into Rome to elect a new pope, the usual chorus of eternal optimists and media lapdogs follow close behind. The secular press is ecstatic because they can pose as pious while lifting sagging newspaper sales and static cable ratings. Beaten down progressive Catholics will do their predictable dupe dance, hoping against all odds that an almost modern pontiff will be elevated to the throne.
Of course, we already know the outcome, given that the last two popes stocked the pool of bishops and cardinals with ideological clones, ensuring conservative continuity. If this weren't bad enough, the former pope will be looking over the new boss' shoulder and has even installed his live-in "personal assistant," to serve the pope-elect, guaranteeing he has eyes and ears inside the Vatican.
But even if my dire assessment were completely off base, it would take nothing short of a miracle to avert failure for the next pope and a crisis of faith for believers. Here are four reasons why the next pope will be met with nearly insurmountable challenges, no matter how talented or charismatic:
1. The Death of Miracles
In the days of ubiquitous camera phones and recording devices it is nearly impossible to stage miracles that can't be debunked. This intrusion of reality and realism unsparingly erodes the Vatican's aura of mysticism and magic, making modern popes and bishops look all too human. Furthermore, orthodox religions like Roman Catholicism depend on a façade of purity, particularly of the sexual variety. I don't need to rehash the already $3 billion in church settlements with the victims of pedophile priests to point out that the hierarchy is about as pure as the driven snow in New York City.
Finally, the Vatican's appearance of infallibility and supernatural authority are dependent on the cooperation of obsequious media outlets and amenable public officials who agree to sell the grand illusion. However, the Internet has created a world of gadflies who have broken the rigid, self-interested monopoly of those who once were able to portray the Vatican with rose-colored glasses. A new pope will not be immune from the pressures of modern media in a wired world.
2. Ongoing Scandal
Seedy new stories of priestly misconduct are so frequent that they are no longer shocking. One has to be living in a fantasy world to think these daily outrages will subside with the selection of a new pontiff. The unrelenting drip of debauchery that has chipped away at the Roman Catholic Church's reputation will surely continue. This will include new outrages from the crop of Cardinals in Rome today, and may well involve the new pope himself. Given the sordid history of recent years, what assurances do the faithful have that their new leader won't be shamed with fresh allegations that he either participated in or covered up child sexual abuse? Such a scenario isn't far-fetched when one considers the meteoric downfall of once beloved Cardinals Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles and Keith O'Brien of Scotland.
Stanching the wound will be nearly impossible, since so many key clergy are compromised. To end the nightmare, the new pope would have to hire private eyes to investigate every bishop in the world -- and then purge the ones whose scandals are ticking time bombs. Without such drastic measures, there are surely more scandals to come and they will constantly shadow the papacy.
3. The System Is Broken
By banning female priests, excluding openly gay ones, demanding celibacy, and a having a history of protecting the church's reputation -- instead of innocent youth, the hierarchy has created the ideal conditions for a Perfect Storm of Scandal. Until the underlying rules are drastically altered and the Vatican chooses to join the modern world, nothing will change and the horrific headlines will keep coming.
4. Developing World Disaster
There are those who believe that an historic selection of a pope from the developing world might boost the church's reputation. This would be true if it were someone enlightened, in the mold of Bishop Desmond TuTu. However, the church has deliberately recruited "leaders" who hold archaic views on social issues. This could easily invite a whole new series of problems, such as retrograde attitudes toward women or cultural homophobia. Just imagine the uproar if a pope from an African nation made the foolish claim that homosexuality is a "western import" or supported Uganda's right to enact its odious "Kill the Gays" bill? Such plausible scenarios would further degrade the Vatican's ability to retain members in Europe, North America, and much of Latin America.
It would take an historic leader, with courage, charisma and conviction, as well as honesty and integrity, to turn this sinking ship around. Does anyone truly see such an extraordinary person at this week's conclave?