VATICAN CITY - Amidst intense speculation and great uncertainty over who will be the new pope, one thing appears certain: no matter who is chosen in the conclave, we should not expect substantial changes on doctrinal matters that have long left many Catholics around the world unhappy.
We should expect the bans to continue on communion for divorced and remarried couples, for celibacy to remain a requirement for Roman Catholic priests, and women to still be excluded from joining the clergy.
Still, despite the hard line, cardinals will be looking for a “very pastoral” figure; that is to say, someone with a spirituality very close to the faithful and, if possible, a charisma that connects with the global masses in these media-driven times. After Benedict XVI, who some found distant at times, the cardinals are looking for a pope who can “breathe new life” into the Church that has been burdened by the weight of too many scandals and internal management shortcomings.
To find the right man with the right mix among them is no easy task for the 115 cardinals who enter the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday afternoon. Following corruption allegations and power struggles in the Roman Curia, the new supreme pontiff should have a strong enough character to generate change in the way the Vatican is managed and resist the pressures of the old guard. Hand-in-hand with this challenge is the choice of who will be the new pope's right-hand man, in the strategic position of Secretary of State. This will not be decided in the conclave, though the cardinals may already be discussing different scenarios and combinations.
Slightest hints of change
But returning to the more fundamental question of doctrine and policy, a general tendency toward conservatism doesn't mean that any and all changes are to be excluded under the new pope. For example, there may be some opening to the idea of allowing communion for divorced and remarried faithful in certain circumstances.
Could there be married priests ordained in parts of the world that experience a clergy shortfall? Might women take more important positions in the ecclesiastical structure? Are there special cases where contraception is allowed? On all of the aforementioned issues there have been small signs of advancement in recent years.
Another fundamental issue that has been openly discussed in the "general congregation" plenaries of the cardinals is the idea of more meaningful participation for cardinals and bishops in the decision-making process for the universal Church. Barcelona’s Cardinal Luis Martínez Sistac put it this way: “The pope alone cannot make the church; we must all help him,” he said.
With this in mind, the starting point in choosing a new pope is looking for a man who can connect with the people.