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Luke de Pulford: Why we all should care about this papal election

Luke de Pulford is training for the priesthood and lives in Rome.

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 23.13.30The eyes of the world are on Rome. Who will be the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics? Will he be a liberal? Conservative? Will his election herald an apocalypse for the Catholic Church's counter-cultural teachings? More importantly: who cares?

Whatever your political views or religious beliefs, the Church matters. Catholicism has a reach and diversity unrivalled by any other institution. It is embedded in every corner of the earth. Its hierarchical structure means that a message or initiative from Rome can be disseminated to the smallest communities in the most remote parts of the world without any reference to any media outlet. As the head of this behemoth, the pope could, if he were really determined, mobilise on a scale that Barack Obama can only dream about.

In the midst of media-driven talk about the Church's decline, it's easy to forget that this is an institution unrivalled in longevity; an institution that has buried empires and ideologies from Rome to Communism and shows no sign of fading - it's bigger than it has ever been. You don't need to a doctorate in geo-politics or history to work out that seeking good relations with the figurehead of this group is a diplomatic no-brainer. When asked about the point of maintaining the UK's diplomatic ties to the Holy See, the former UK Ambassador, Francis Campbell, used to respond that there were two ways of looking at Vatican City: either as a religious fiefdom similar in influence to San Marino, or as another China.

Vatican City is a tiny state, granted, but it is hard to imagine San Marino being called upon to help superpowers deliver their foreign policy on the ground in far-flung and dangerous parts of the world, as is often the case with the Catholic Church. It is the largest aid institution in the world. Its sheer dispersion makes the Church's perspective on international relations unique, and its non-political nature mean that its contributions are never taken lightly.

Many reading this will have an image of the pope as the CEO of an irrelevant, inimical sky-fairy-myth-believing cult. Believe what you like, but, for the reasons above, it's pretty hard to make the "irrelevant" label stick. Just the other day, the Guardian's Lizzy Davies tweeted: "There are now more 5,000 journalists accredited for #conclave. From 65 different countries." That number is now closer to 6000. All this for a puff of white smoke concluding an arcane voting ceremony conducted by a group of old men. It's hard to imagine anything more un-newsworthy, more heretical to our youth and sex-driven press than this. Irrelevant? Really?

But, by my reckoning, only a tiny fraction of questions put to Catholics about the pope have anything to do with important things like the Church's international clout or charitable work. They are nearly all about liberalism, conservatism, sex, doctrinal change and so forth. We don't even need to know who the next pope will be to answer these. The supposed liberalism or conservatism of the office holder will not make any difference at all to the Church's stance on abortion, contraception, the morality of sexual acts or any other settled aspect of Catholic doctrine that offends the modern moral consensus. Why? Because Catholics consider the Church's teaching to be of God - revealed, not invented - and, as such, unchangeable. Correspondingly, they believe these teaching to be beautiful and thoroughly reasonable.

The next guy could be a rabid socialist and struggle privately with some point of Catholic teaching. But we can pretty certain that he will also be a Catholic, and Catholics believe in the Divine origin of that same teaching. It simply isn't the pope's to change. His role is to pass it on. It's in the job description. I can therefore offer a cast-iron guarantee of disappointment to all those hoping for doctrinal u-turns. Not going to happen. Can't happen. Why this simple point of theology routinely eludes commentators baffles me.

The rather mundane truth is that there is not a great deal to choose between these cardinals. Not, at least, in the sense that the Church's critics would like there to be. They are all believing Catholics. They will share a similar, if not identical, theological understanding of the role of the pope. If elected, they would each seek faithfully to transmit and safeguard the faith they have received.

But this analysis seems to downgrade the papal office to that of a symbolic place-man and the cardinal electors to a cabal of interchangeable, entrenched, fusty old hierarchs. Is this fair? Of course not. However, it is worth noting the pope could, in theory, write nothing himself and have no significant ideas and most of us wouldn't know the difference. Amusingly, I quizzed a senior Curial official a couple of years ago about how much of the pope's output was his own work. Besides being a master class in diplomacy, his answer reveals something important about the nature of the office. He replied: "The system works such that the Holy Father could contribute as much or as little as he would like". 

It a nutshell, it's about the office, not the man. The day-to-day reality of the papacy is that he works collegially, together with the Roman bureaucracy, the rest of the bishops and the whole Church. Incidentally, this is the reason that the pope's country of origin is barely relevant. Naturally, the new pope will bring with him the experience and perspective of the land in which he grew up. But the notion that his personal perspective could change the direction of the Church is predicated on the misunderstanding that the pope acts as some sort of isolated autocrat.

He has 4000 bishop advisers spread around the world who regularly provide updates on the state of play in their locality. With them, his job to scrutinise the signs of the times in order to make the unchanging truth of Christianity intelligible to modern man. It is in this sense that there is change and development in the Church, and it is in this sense that popes can, and nearly always do, set the agenda. When your listeners number billions that's a big agenda and a big deal. When your business is the salvation of souls, it's a crushing responsibility.

Non-Catholics find it difficult to understand that a pope's reading of the signs of the times does not result in, has never resulted in, and will never resulted in a reversal of Catholic doctrine. To outsiders, the Church seems a political institution like any other and its ideas out of kilter with modernity. As with politics, a change in "policy" seems as if it could and should be brought about by majority will. But, as I've explained, even to put this argument is to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what Catholicism is.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a second-rate theological journal instead of ConHome. It seems strange to write all of this for a political forum, but it's an essential prerequisite to any informed comment on the subject. There is a chasm between how Catholics understand their Church, and how outsiders attempt to read it. Any one of the never-ending tragicomedy of Church PR disasters is evidence enough of this - a phenomenon only enhanced by the spectacle of journalists struggling with a theological vocabulary they reckon to have mastered after 15 minutes' googling. Entertaining the idea of a self-communicating God is a must if you really want to make sense of what the Catholic Church is trying to do. Without at least attempting this leap of empathy, you will never get inside the mind of the institution.  

Let's leave the caricatures aside. Love him or hate him, the pope is an important global figure. Come the announcement, I will be in Saint Peter's Square with scores of thousands of other breathless well-wishers, from every corner of the globe, including the persecuted and underground churches of China and the Middle East. Standing in the shadow of the nearly 4000 year-old obelisk, probably the very last thing Peter, the Apostle of Jesus saw before his brutal execution on the Vatican hill, the overwhelming feeling will be one of jubilation as together we welcome the new pontiff. Here's hoping some of that joy will break through the relentlessly negative media narrative to reach everyone watching or listening, Catholic or not.


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