The scholar popes
How John Paul II and Benedict XVI changed their office

Pope Benedict XVI by Jeffrey Bruno / Shutterstock.com

Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful in Saint Peters Square on the occasion of the Beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1, 2011 in Vatican City, Rome.

Article Highlights

  • Speculation about Pope Benedict’s successor has focused on nationality, race, and geography.

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  • The next Pope most likely, will not be American. The Catholic Church is a worldwide institution with European roots.

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  • Approaching papal elections as an Olympic sport, with teams of bishops, obscures a lot of what’s important about them.

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  • John Paul and Benedict were intellectuals. They also had more pastoral experience than the post–World War I popes.

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In the days since Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will step down at the end of February, speculation about his successor has obsessed about nationality, race, and geography. Are we about to see the first African pope? Or the first American one?

The answer to that second question is probably “No.” The Catholic Church is a worldwide institution with European roots and a population increasingly drawn from the “global South” (what used to be called the “Third World”). Both Europe and the global South think that the United States controls enough of the world as it is. This sentiment can be found even among people who generally think well of us. It seems likely that most of the cardinals of the Church share it.

Approaching papal elections as an Olympic sport, with national teams of bishops, obscures a lot of what’s important about them. This is true even when nationality is important. When John Paul II was selected, a great deal of attention was paid, understandably, to the fact that he was the first Polish pope ever and the first non-Italian in centuries. The selection of Benedict XVI, a German, made for a non-Italian streak, which was again widely noted. Fewer people noticed that these two popes had no experience in the Vatican diplomatic corps, as every pope from 1914 to 1978 had. John Paul and Benedict were intellectuals — indeed, academics — unlike their predecessors. They also had more pastoral experience than the post–World War I popes.

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