First published in the Catholic Herald. subscribe today !

There are few more dramatic moments in the life of the Church than the election of a new pope. Until the resignation of Pope Benedict there was  usually some warning; often an illness that preceded death for an elderly Pontiff.

But given the place precedence plays in the life of the church, the fact that Pope Francis has been raising the possibility of his resignation recently has fuelled a torrent of speculation.

Firstly, does he mean it? And then equally dramatically, who would he be replaced by?

Does he mean it?

He seems to like to keep people guessing. When he raised the possibility of his retiring early due to ill health and mobility issues, opinion was divided. Some people took this as a sign that he wanted to prepare the church for a monumental step he saw himself moving towards, offering an opportunity to discreetly begin the complex preparations for finding his successor; others saw it as the expression of a well-developed sense of humour, teasing those who had found his papacy difficult with something that was more of a possibility than a probability.

But this ambiguity has formed one of the marks of this papacy. It is an aspect of Pope Francis’ character that it  has played a significant role in the way he has functioned as pope. From the nuanced language of Amoris Laetitia to his now trademark phrase (who am I to judge), the pope has delighted the liberal, secular and media world, and alarmed the conservatives. The liberals have taken the extra latitude that he has slipped into the atmosphere of Catholicism as a sign that the pope may discreetly favour the reflexes of liberal secularism to the uncompromising moral teaching that characterised the church ‘at all times, in all places.”

The iconography of his public engagements has followed the same pattern. From the dramatic inclusion of Pachamama accompanying the Amazonian Synod, to his immersion in indigenous North American smudging ceremonies at the hands of an Indian shaman, he once again divided the Catholic world.

On the one side was Jesuit and liberal culture. At its best, in the past,  the lengths that Catholics were willing to go to understand indigenous culture and spirituality were seen as an indication of how serious they were in their attempts to learn of new language of evangelical authenticity and successfully convert people to a relationship with Jesus and the church; well summed up in the well-worn phrase, ‘to meet people where they were’.

On the other side of the interpretative chasm was traditional Catholicism with its sharpened awareness that all that glittered in the spiritual world was not gold, and one of the greatest dangers the Church faced was a syncretistic selling out to competitive cultures abandoning all that was objectively demanding in Christianity for a vacuous relativism.

The emergence of a very particular culture war within the Church, presenting as a tussle over liturgy and the Tridentine Mass, but embodying in a particular way the wider ‘life or death’ struggle between progressives, believers in progress and inclusion on one side, and traditionalists and defenders of the Magisterium on the other, intensified what the two sides saw to be at stake in this papacy.

Imminence v transcendence, rigidity versus fidelity, subjectivity v objectivity, the clash of the liturgy polarised the responses to the papacy even further.

Galvanised by Pope Francis’  slipping of his potential resignation into the public conversation, the two opposing sides in the culture wars within the church have found themselves planning for the post-Francis papacy.

Who will replace him?

Can the church rely on the swinging of the pendulum to restore some kind of integrated balance to a Catholicism that lurches from the overt Protestant ambitions of the German Synodal Path to the energised revitalisation of young Catholics flocking to the Latin Mass?

Will the instinctive rule of ‘fat pope-thin pope’ save the church from the schisms that threaten it?

Of the 128  Cardinal electors,  Pope Francis has created 73. Commentators might be forgiven for assuming that he had succeeded in ensuring that his successor would replicate his own particular values.  Edwin Pentin has written an excellent book entitled ‘the Next Pope’ offering theological and biographical profiles of the leading candidates for the succession. He rightly and helpfully documents what stances they have taken over the liturgy and sexuality in particular and political and theological preferences in general.

What criteria will the cardinals carry into their prayers when the moment of Pope Francis’ death (or earlier resignation) brings them to their knees, together?

The impending sense of crisis ought to means that it is unlikely that they will simply set out to replicate the distinctive and sometimes enigmatic preferences of the present incumbent.

They issue they will have to struggle with is the relationship of the Church to culture. Vatican 1 produced  a response to the challenges of cultural and intellectual climate the  Enlightenment birthed, seeking and finding a strengthening of ecclesial unity in the expression of doctrine of papal infallibility. Vatican 2 responded to the acceleration of secularism with an attempt to create a bridge of compromise and mutuality to allow Catholics ‘dual nationality’ in the cultures they lived in.

But the question that should present itself to the Cardinals as they look for a successor to Francis, is whether or not ‘sympathetic enigma’  is now sufficient? What will be needed to deal with the full scale assault that the rapid intensification of cultural and ideological change which has been unleashed throughout the West in particular and which has taken form in the cultural wars battering the church?

There was a critical moment in the history of England during the 9th century. The Danes made slow but steady incursions in the east of the country, and the practice had been to buy them off, on the grounds that they might be amenable to constraint if given enough gold and silver. But ‘Danegeld’ did not work. They proved not to be as amenable as it was hoped. You can’t buy off an opponent whose intention is your destruction.

The cultural compromises the church has made in the last seventy years might have made sense for as long as the culture was amenable to dialogue and creative interaction with the Christian faith and its most substantial exponent, the Catholic Church. But if the experience of the experiment that has been the German Synodal Way teaches the church anything, beyond the discontented clamouring against Catholic identity and ethical integrity, it is that the ethos of self-indulgent secularised consumerism prevalent throughout the West, has developed a sharp antipathy to Christianity.

Whether we call it Wokery, Cultural Marxism or ‘the New Globalism,’ the threats to freedom of speech and freedom of thought mask a severe antipathy to the faith.

The kind of pope that will serve the church best after the departure of Pope Francis, will be need to be one has the intellectual calibre and spiritual integrity to defend the church against the political and metaphysical assaults that the recent decades have been only a prelude to.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was almost certainly correct in principle when he foretold the anti-Christian persecution that is just starting to break surface;

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history”

Cultural and theological Danegeld will no longer work, if it ever did. We will need a pope who embodies as much prophet authenticity as he does political acumen.