Ok, so Pope Francis thinks his papal years will be short. Of course they will be—he is 78. He has one lung. He often is visible exhausted by the end of his weekly audience. He has hinted of a premonition that he will not live much longer. Threats have been made against his life. Even should he live another eight or nine years, he has indicated that he, like his predecessor, will retire when he can no longer fulfill the responsibilities of the job. He himself indicates it might be three or so more years. But we never know. The frail and sickly Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci reigned 25 years as Leo XIII and at his death at age 93 was the oldest man to sit on the Chair of Peter. But lightening rarely hits twice and Francis is probably right. So what will the next pope be like?
Well, you can be sure the Cardinals are going to argue long and hard about a successor. The actual conclave may not last long—they rarely do in this day and age—but the interregnum and the daily consistorial meetings will be filled with lively debate. Some Cardinals, but at this point I think relatively few, will want to push ahead with Francis’ full agenda. Others—and I think even fewer—will want to go back to the John Paul/Benedict days and dismantle the Francis Papacy in the same spirit—and with the same spiteful energy—that Tea Party wing-nuts will want to dismantle the Obama legacy. Much will depend on how many Cardinals Francis gets to appoint. Should he live another three years, he will probably appoint between 30 and 35 voting Cardinals. He has already appointed 31 voting Cardinals. While the majority of his appointees reflect the direction in which he is taking the Church, there are some who represent a more measured, even contrary, approach. On the other hand, many of the Cardinals who elected him will still be sitting and he certainly has his allies in prelates like Oscar Maradiaga, Rienhard Marx, Donald Wuerl, Luis Tagle, and Christoph Schönborn. I am somewhat reluctant to put Sean O’Malley in this group for while he is a strong supporter of Francis’ reform agenda and a man of unquestioned integrity, I suspect he might be a bit slower than Francis on the issues of welcoming those in irregular unions back to the Sacraments. Don’t get me wrong, I think he will support Francis as long as Francis is Pope, but I think he may be a bit more cautious about where the Church should so publicly go.
In fact, I think enough Cardinals will be of a more cautious mind that while many of Francis’ reforms will be embraced, there will be a backing away from the more-or-less unconditional welcoming home of those whose lives don’t match up to a somewhat more rigorous approach to Catholic moral theology. I am sure Francis knows this and is determined to cross the Eucharistic Rubicon while he still stands in the shoes of the Fisherman. The 2014 session of the Synod on the Family proved to be a bigger hurdle than Francis and his supporters thought and I am sure both sides will be pushing even harder this October to determine where the line of scrimmage will fall. But should he leave the agenda unfinished, I think the Cardinals will pick a successor who will be warm and friendly but not quite so spontaneous in his suggested pastoral approaches.
The role of our old buddy Ray By-the-Grace-of-God-Cardinal Burke in the pre-conclave jockeying will be interesting. He has taken on the role as leader of the opposition, something that the Church has not had quite so openly for several centuries. He has pledged to “resist” any change in discipline regarding admitting the divorced and remarried (and same-sex married) people to the sacraments, though it is not clear what he means by “resist.” If Francis gets his agenda through the Synod, any public “resistance” is highly unlikely. He may express his dismay, even his displeasure, but it would be difficult to repudiate an official Church policy. Some think that Burke has set himself up in opposition to establish himself as the successor to Francis in the next conclave when the Cardinals, putatively disenchanted and disillusioned by Francis, decide to swing the pendulum back. Burke has, over the years, confided to his nearest and dearest that he would like to be “the first American Successor to Saint Peter.” But as obtuse as he can be—and H.E. can be pretty obtuse—even he has to realize that the geo-political scene would not permit a pope from the leading world power. The credibility of the Church, what is left of it after the sex and banking scandals, demands a pope with established political neutrality. What Burke, if his reality co-ordinates are at all aligned, might be hoping for as leader of the opposition is an opportunity to play king-maker and get a pope elected whom he can trust to follow his own right-wing agenda. This too, however, is highly unlikely as Cardinal Burke is generally regarded as a bit of a buffoon even by some of his fellow authors of Remaining In The Truth of Christ, the book that Burke and others wrote to resist Cardinal Kasper’s push to change the policy regarding Holy Communion for those in irregular marriages. Burke’s obsession with the pomp and panoply of cappae magnae and sky-high miters capping off his pontifical gorgeousness has made him the butt of too many jokes even among his fellow Cardinals to be taken with any seriousness. Francis’ removing him from the various Congregations and commissions pulled the few remaining teeth of the now gumming lion sitting on the Aventine amid the equally silly swords and capes of the Malta Moolanaires.
No, what I think we can expect after Francis is a Pope who will assure us that he will be following in Francis’ footsteps but who will, in fact, create his own agenda that will step back from Francis’ willingness to rethink things from the ground up. This will be much like John Paul II who paid great tribute at his election of John XXIII and Paul VI but went on to be very much his own man and move in a very different direction than the two Popes of Vatican II. There will be some external conformity to Francis. I don’t think Popes will be living in the top-floor suite of the Apostolic Palace again, at least for some time. All due respect for Pope Francis, but I don’t believe this was a move of humility. In this age of drones and shoulder-fired missiles no world leader would live in a place so exposed as a suite overlooking not simply Saint Peter’s Square, but the entire city of Rome. The successor to Francis may find Benedict’s quarters in a former monastery to be more suitable than a hotel, but future popes will continue to have a private residence. I think his successor may also favor the simpler dress code of Francis but even if he reverts to the more traditional rochet and mozetta, I think it will be more like that of other bishops than Santa Claus (who was, after all, a bishop himself—but don’t tell Mrs. Claus. Hmm, can Santa go to Holy Communion? Is he married in the Church? Did he get properly dispensed? Hmmm.) I think the efforts to reform the Curia will continue, though I am not sure with how much success and any attempt to decentralize Church government in favor of the local ordinaries will depend on the success of Curia Reform.
It is pretty unrealistic to think that Francis’ successor will be willing to turn the clock back on Vatican II. Unfortunately ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue is in a bit of suspended animation these days and Francis’ cordiality in particular with his Jewish friends is seen more as a personal outreach than official contact. The pan-Orthodox Synod scheduled for next year might kick-start some serious ecumenical endeavors to which Francis and his successor will need to respond, but then again it might be a dud as far as the non-Orthodox world goes. On the other hand, rumors that the Synod might want a serious sit-down Council with the Pope and Western Bishops to forge a common Christian (or at least Orthodox-Catholic) response to the double threat of advancing secularism and radical Islam could provide some real challenges for this Pope and future ones. Whatever happens though it is not realistic to think that Francis successor (or his successor or his successor’s successor or his successor’s successor’s successor etc) will be able to retreat from ecumenical and inter-religious collaboration.
It is equally out of the question that Francis’ successor can make peace with the Society of Saint Pius X without the Lefebvrists formally accepting the Conciliar decrees. Given the intransience of Bishop Fellay and his followers it is highly unlikely that schism will be healed. As for the Liturgy, Francis successor will probably—like Francis—tolerate the Traditional Liturgy but not only will do nothing to advance it but find ways to discourage its use. Most of the Cardinals who are residential Archbishops have had sufficient problems with Traditionalist groups that they do not want to foster the movement. Down the line that may change as the current crop of conservative seminarians and younger priests climb the ecclesial ladder; it is hard to tell what the long-term survival of Traditional Latin Mass groups will be. Actually Cardinal Burke, like Cardinals Stickler (+2007) and Castrillón Hoyos before him, has done far more to hurt the survival of the Traditional Liturgy than help it. Their great pontifical Liturgies have associated the TLM with eccentricity and fringe groups that are given to monarchial displays and a sort of pedantic antiquarianism. As the Traditionalists devolve more and more into a cult the mainline Church is less and less able to integrate them into the life of the Church and they find themselves isolated from the larger Church and more and more only in their own ecclesial bubble. Their ability to survive within the Church will be a challenge to both sides over the next quarter century.
So, for you “liberals” who love Francis—enjoy the day; it will not last forever. And for you neo-trads, the road ahead will be bumpy and with more disappointments than successes. All in all I think the pace will slow down to a more gentle tempo after Francis but the course will be held. But then only God knows.