The election of the next pope offers the Roman Catholic Church a
great opportunity to reconnect with the rest of the world, to
communicate the best of its social teaching, and to put justice at
the heart of its message. There has been plenty of talk about the
importance of the new pope's coming from somewhere other than
Europe, but I think the important thing is not where he is from,
but what he says and does.
Pope Benedict's record in this area is mixed: he has made some
extremely challenging criticism of economic models that do not
deliver for people who are poor. And few popes have spoken as
eloquently as he has on environmental concerns.
At the same time, however, he has, largely through some
unfor-tunate remarks (for instance, his comments about Islam in a
lecture in Regensburg in 2006, which caused great offence), failed
to build on the genuine respect that marked the era of his
predecessor. Pope John Paul II had a longer term, but forged strong
relationships across Christian denominations and other faiths - for
example, in many meetings with the various Archbishops of
Canterbury in his time.
There have been arguments that, because of the demography of the
Roman Catholic Church - its growth in the so-called developing
world - that a pope from the global South would bring an added
dimension. I agree, but I would be wary of making assumptions.
Of course, the challenges around global poverty and the new
economic order pose significant opportunities for the pope and the
wider Catholic community. But the real challenge is the extent to
which any pope, regardless of his geographical background, can
carve out a sufficiently strong space to engage on the pressing
social issues of the day, amid the demands of dealing with various
crises - from sexual-abuse scandals to money-laundering and
corruption - while also navigating pronouncements around sexuality
without falling into homophobia. These crises come down to a
question of power: both the inability to exercise it properly, and
the abuse of that power.
A pope from the global South would present an important image of
the Church. But, sadly, there are no Dom Helda Camaras or Oscar
Romeros in the conclave.
The reality is that, during the tenure of Pope Benedict, we have
seen a shift in the agenda and processes within the RC Church. For
some, this has been a welcome move back to certain ground. For me,
it has felt like an abandonment of the principles and ethos of the
Second Vatican Council, which gave so much energy to the Church's
social mission and subsequent engagement of lay people in outreach,
organisations, and politics.
There has been a growing conservatism and a focus on issues
around the beginning and end of life, and about sexuality, and much
less about the wider social and economic challenges facing people,
wherever they are. This is paradoxical, given Benedict's written
statements on economic and environmental matters.
One of the challenges is that Benedict's statements in this area
were often expressed in such impenetrable language that it was
difficult for the media to promote them, or for many in the pew to
be aware of what was being said.
It is not by accident that Roman Catholic social teaching is
called "the Church's best-kept secret". Who knows, for instance,
that Benedict himself brought in the concept of intergenerational
justice when he talked about the importance of ecology (Caritas
Roman Catholics are seen only ever to talk about sexuality,
reproduction, or other aspects of what might be called "pelvic
theology". It is not that this is unimportant, but there is more to
Catholics than that.
I am occasionally asked by friends how I find my place within
such a misogynist, homophobic, power-abusing institution as the
Church. It is a valid question. Yet, for every example of those
elements, I have found examples of the opposite, too: of service,
humility, welcome, and genuine collaboration.
It is important that the next pope should continue the heritage
of speaking out on social issues and proclaiming a gospel based on
love. This does not mean creating a dichotomy between personal and
social morality, but rather that both are covered by the call to
respect human dignity which is a central tenet to Catholic social
It is often said that because the Roman Catholic Church has been
in existence for centuries, 50 years is not long to wait; but there
are important opportunities over the next few years, where the
voice of a social conscience over economic models, aid, paying tax,
and caring for the earth needs to be heard.
The credibility of the RC Church on social issues is
fundamentally undermined if it does not put its own house in order.
There is much debate among lay people about a different vision of
power in the Church. It seems that Rome has been too afraid to
listen to it. The time to engage has now come.
All this needs to be communicated in a tone that can show
leadership through loving and forgiving - not through command and
control; and by being able to speak to people - not through
impenetrable documents that require theologians to interpret them,
but by putting into practice a clear message: that God is
Christine Allen is Director of Policy & Public Affairs
at Christian Aid; she is a former Chief Executive of Progressio, a
Roman Catholic development organisation.