Now that the date for the papal conclave has been set for this Tuesday, the media has been tirelessly publishing story after story about Vatican scandals and political intrigue. We fully expect the media to continue harping on this cassock-and-dager stuff in order to create material for their daily coverage of the Church during the conclave, but it’s important to keep our eyes on the true stakes of this election, which matters to non-Catholics across the globe as much as it matters to Catholics.
In the West the standard rap on Catholicism is that the Church is collapsing as its adherents drift from the faith or convert to evangelical Protestantism. This may be true in the West, but globally there’s a much more complicated story. The Church remains a powerful and growing institution despite its relative decline in the West due to important gains in fast-growing regions like Africa and China. And as the largest non-governmental organization in the world, it’s easy to underestimate what the Church does in terms of promoting international understanding, working for peace in troubled parts of the world, and caring for the poorest of the poor. It is often imperfect in its pursuit of these goals, but it does all of these things in areas where almost nobody else is doing them.
Dealing with the scandals and intrigue in the Vatican is a serious part of the journalistic work that has to be done in covering the conclave. But it’s important to remember that the Church isn’t reducible to Vatican politics. Nor, for Catholics, is it reducible to its human side. For Catholics the church is a divine as well as a human institution, one that God works through to bring peace and justice to the world despite its human failings and weaknesses.
Catholics all around the world are now praying for a Pope who can lead them in this work. Even for those of us who aren’t Catholic, the importance of that mission means we should wish the electing Cardinals well.