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Important issues that may have affected the selection of Pope
Benedict XVI

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Essentially all of the 120 cardinals who made up the 2005 conclave were personally selected by Pope John Paul II. Some observers assumed that they would elect a pope who matches the previous pope in terms of style, philosophy and beliefs. But others cited what has been called the "pendulum law." This states that each successive pope tends to differ greatly from the one before -- often appearing as opposites in many ways.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, had been prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In that post, he worked closely with Pope Paul II on various encyclicals. In fact, he wrote many of them. 8 These included documents on the role of women, participation of Catholics in political life, marriages and civil unions of same-sex couples, etc. It would appear that the new pope matches the philosophy and beliefs of Pope Paul II.

John L. Allen, Jr., author of "Conclave," has suggested five major issues that the cardinals may have considered in their deliberations. 1 Each cardinal probably had well considered views on each of these issues and may have tried to select a pope who matches his own beliefs.

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Issue 1: Collegiality in the Church:

The term "collegiality" refers to an cooperative environment in which the "bishops, and through them the people of the local churches, should be involved in setting policy -- first in their own churches and even for the universal Catholic Church." 2 This is seen in various degrees in most Protestant faith groups, where clergy and laity select the denomination's president or moderator; delegates representing the laity and clergy also vote on resolutions to determine the denomination's position on theological and social issues. However, the Roman Catholic church has traditionally been organized along non-democratic lines. In 1870, the First Vatican Council declared the primacy and infallibility of the pope. Since that time, the pope has been able to establish certain beliefs as being free of error and in which the entire church membership must believe. Collegiality was a prominent topic during Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (a.k.a. Vatican II; 1962 to 1965).

The church appears to have become less collegial in recent years. Power has been increasingly concentrated in the pope and the Curia -- the Vatican's civil service. Some examples:

bulletIn some areas, there was a long-standing tradition by which bishops were elected by the local priests. This has been replaced by papal selection from Rome.
bulletA church-wide gag order has prevented priests, bishops, cardinals, etc. from arguing in public against any existing church teaching, or even stating that change is needed.
bulletIn his 1998 document Apostolos Suos, Pope John Paul II stated that bishops' conferences lack any theological or collegial status.

There are forces promoting both increased and decreased collegiality within the church. Some suggest that a strong centralized control from Rome is needed if a worldwide church is to retain its effectiveness as it is impacted by various languages, cultures and ideologies.

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Issue 2: Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue:

The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions (1976), made a major step forward towards religious unity when, referring to non-Catholic religions, it stated that: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men." 3 

John Paul II has referred to the first millennium CE as a period of unity and the second as division. He hopes that the third will be a time of reunion, when the thousands of Christian denominations coalesce into one. During his pontificate, he has reached out to Eastern Orthodox Christians, even apologizing in 2001-MAY to Archbishop Christodoulos for more than a millennia of perceived Western offenses against the Orthodox church. He has visited the Holocaust memorial and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. He has met with Muslims over fifty times.

However, there have been negative developments in the field of ecumenism. In the year 2000, the papal document Dominus Iesus suggested that there are four groups of religions in the world:

bulletThe Roman Catholic Church which was established by Jesus Christ: "he himself is in the Church and the Church is in him...."
bulletEastern Orthodox Churches which are united with the Catholic Church.
bulletThe remaining Christian denominations which are not "churches in the proper sense." However, their members are "incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church."
bulletOther religions practice rituals which may "depend on superstitions or other errors... [and] constitute an obstacle to salvation." Members of other religions are "gravely deficient" relative to members of the Church of Christ who already have "the fullness of the means of salvation." More details on "Dominus Iesus."

This document generated a flood of negative comments from non-Catholic groups. Even some Catholic experts on interreligious dialogue were shocked.

There have been many instances of religious schism. This happened in the 11th century when the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches formally split. It happened in the 16th century when the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant movement separated. Once a split has occurred, the resulting denominations tend to progressively distance themselves from one another in beliefs and practice. Unifying them becomes progressively more difficult and may now be an impossible task.

Many Christians are concerned with the increased numbers of Muslims in the world. As long as it is fractured into thousands of denominations, it is difficult for Christianity to compete with Islam. There is a strong concern for ecumenicalism within the Catholic Church.

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Issue 3: Globalization, poverty and justice:

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called for:

bulletThe developed world to cancel the debts of poor nations.
bulletAmnesty for some prisoners.
bulletAn end to the death penalty.

There are many other global problems that adversely affect billions of people. Some are: grinding poverty, preventable diseases, political oppression and genocide. There is a lack of adequate housing, drinking water, democracy, civil rights, religious freedom, free speech, educational opportunities, etc. John Allen comments: "The next pope will...face the deep intellectual challenge of not merely offering verbal support for social justice but finding ways of translating it into concrete proposals for social structures and systems. He will have to move beyond denouncing a gap between rich and poor to promoting credible alternatives." 4

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Issue 4: Bioethics, sexuality, gender and the family:

This issue contains a broad range of problems, including:

bulletArtificial birth control,
bulletAbortion access,
bulletWhether Catholics who have divorced and remarried under civil law should continue to be denied the sacraments.
bulletTherapeutic cloning
bulletStem cell research
bulletIn vitro fertilization and other pregnancy assisting technologies
bulletEqual rights for gays and lesbians
bulletSame-sex marriage
bulletSurrogate motherhood
bulletSperm banks
bulletEuthanasia and physician assisted suicide
bulletCelibacy of the priesthood.
bulletFemale ordination

There is a movement in some western democracies to allow same-sex couples to marry. The percentage of Roman Catholic couples who use artificial birth in North America does not differ significantly from the rest of the population. Approximately six million Catholics in the U.S. alone have divorced and remarried without receiving an annulment. 5 A majority within the conclave apparently selected Pope Benedict XVI in order to reinforce and defend traditional Church teaching. Only a minority of cardinals appear to have wanted the new pope to change church teaching and resolve these difficult internal church conflicts.

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Issue 5: The role of women and the laity:

The supply of priests and nuns within the Catholic Church has reached crisis proportions in some countries. The average age of priests in some countries have reached the mid-60s or higher. In the 12 years between 1998 and 2010, the total number of working priests is expected to drop from about 23 thousand to 15 thousand. There are already more than 2,000 priestless parishes. 6

There is pressure within the church to allow more priests to marry. There are a small minority of priests within the church who were Anglican priests or other clergy and who converted to Roman Catholicism. There is pressure to consider female ordination. Over the past few decades, this has become routine among liberal, mainline, and some Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestant denominations. Near the turn of the century, there were about 2,000 more full or part-time professional lay ministers in the U.S. than priests. 7 Pressure is building to allow the lay ministers to take on increasing functions formerly reserved for priests.

Some within the magesterium resist change. Others, along with the majority of North American laity, promote significant change in many areas. Many agree that Pope Benedict XVI will have to deal decisively with this issue.

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Reference used:

  1. John L. Allen, Jr., "Conclave: The politics, personalities and process of the next papal election," Doubleday, (2002), Chapter 2 "Voting Issues," Pages 38 to 68. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Ibid, Page 41 & 42.
  3. Ibid, Page 53.
  4. Ibid, Page 59.
  5. Ibid, Page 61.
  6. Ibid, Page 63.
  7. Ibid, Page 67.
  8. "Selected Documents," The Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club, at: http://ratzingerfanclub.com/

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-APR-01
Latest update: 2005-APR-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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