The new Pope
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Date: 05 April, 2005

Shining Light

The body of Pope John Paul II lying in state
photo: Rex Features


'The last time they elected an aged caretaker Pope he called the second Vatican council and completely rewrote Catholicism.'

Steve Tomkins looks at the legacy of Pope John Paul II who died on April 2 and the impact that it might have on the choice of the next Pontiff

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope. Though not nearly so long as the last one, that’s one thing we can be sure of.

Pope John Paul II was the third longest serving Pope in history, and not even his most ardent followers in the conclave (which probably includes most of them) will want to hand his successor another quarter-century of absolute power.

When Pope Pius IX died in 1870, Cardinal Newman said, “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no-one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.”


Don’t expect to hear any cardinals talking so bluntly about John Paul over the the next few weeks. But equally don’t expect them to elect another Pope in his fifties. (Though, that said, the last time they elected an aged caretaker Pope he called the second Vatican council and completely rewrote Catholicism. Nothing is sure.)

There is also a tradition in Rome that each Pope selected is the opposite of his predecessor. This is another reason why a young Pope, as John Paul was, would naturally be followed by an old man.

Whether the same goes for nationality is an interesting question. John Paul II was the first non-Italian Pope in exactly 600 years, so other things being equal, his successor would presumably be Italian.

But other things are not equal. When John Paul took office, there was something like 45 million Catholics in Africa. Now, there is more than three times that number. There are 550 million in the Americas. Meanwhile, in Europe, numbers are steadily falling, and Europeans now only make up a quarter of the Catholic Church.

This is why many seem to feel the time has come for the first Pope from the developing world. This is where the majority of Catholics are, and this is where the Church is growing.

Moreover the developing world has different issues to Europe. Here Catholics spend a lot of time talking about liberalism, church decline, the pill, abortion, women priests, homosexuality and celibacy. In the developing world, Catholics tend to be more interested in poverty, Aids and liberation theology.


These are rather more pressing concerns than Europe’s, and it would be wonderful to see the next Pope get to grips with them in a way that John Paul never did.

One downside to this is that third-world Catholicism tends to be more conservative than in Europe’s, offering less hope than one might like for a rethink of John Paul’s reactionary hard line on women, celibacy, contraception, etc.

On the other hand, perhaps this is a fair price to pay for having a champion of development in the papacy. An African Pope might even be willing to rethink John Paul’s refusal to allow condoms for protection from Aids - a significant contribution to the figure of 14,000 new victims a day.

In fact, what a thrilling prospect, for those of us who care about and campaign for justice for the developing world, in this of all years, to see the new Pope donning his metaphorical Make Poverty History armband, and throwing his incomparable weight behind the campaign for trade justice!

If that’s on his To Do list, then long live the Pope.

The life of Pope John Paul II