New pope must rebrand church

Story highlights

  • Timothy Stanley: The church that Benedict XVI leaves is beset by problems new pope must face
  • New pope must "rebrand" church, move beyond travails, reinvigorate Catholicism, he says
  • Stanley says fundamentals can't change, but pope can reconsider celibacy rule
  • Church should deal openly with sex abuse scandal, maintain doctrinal authority, he says

Pope Benedict XVI gave an emotional farewell in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday. The moment said a lot about his papacy. On the one hand, the square was packed with an estimated 150,000 enthusiastic Catholics eager to show him love and respect. On the other hand, the pope's remarks conceded that his papacy was often a troubled one: "There were moments," he said, "as there were throughout the history of the church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping."

The church that Benedict will no longer lead is indeed beset with problems -- its legacy of child sexual abuse, declining presence in the West, reputation for anachronism and, most recently, embarrassing allegations of a gay sex scandal in the hierarchy. The next pope is going to have to move the church beyond these travails to reinvigorate Catholicism for the 21st century. To borrow a much abused marketing term, he is going to have to subject it to a rebranding.

Benedict was right to qualify his remarks about the present troubles by noting that the church has had many such moments before. It has survived being split in two (the schism of 1054), having two competing popes (the Great Schism of 1378 to 1417) and outright heresy (the Reformation of the 16th century).

Timothy Stanley

It has twice confronted and found compromise with the tide of modernity -- the First Vatican Council confronted liberalism in 1869-1870 and the Second Vatican Council accommodated socialism and secularism in 1962-1965. Despite the tiredness or unfashionability that can come with old age, the church has always managed to find enthusiastic converts. Contrary to popular perceptions, Catholicism continues to add followers and priests and is growing fastest in the developing world. Sixteen percent of the world's Catholics now live in Africa.

So the next pope will have no reason to panic. Neither will he have any reason to mess with church fundamentals. Indeed, he cannot do this -- Catholic doctrine is a complex web and removing one strand of belief (by changing strictures against abortion, divorce, women priests, for example) would threaten the entire structure.

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One belief justifies another (the church's attitude toward contraception flows from its understanding of what life is and God's role in it) and conceding that the church has been wrong on something in the past opens the door to reassessing its entire theology -- if the church was wrong about the gender of priests, is it wrong about the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary or transubstantiation, the literal, not symbolic, transformation of bread and wine into the physical presence of Christ?

Interestingly, the one area where theology is governed by law rather than doctrine -- and so is theoretically open for debate -- is priestly celibacy. That's why some are floating it as a must-see reform for the next pope.

If the pope cannot get depressed and cannot rewrite the Catechism, he can at least rebrand -- in the purest sense of the word.

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When you rebrand a product, you don't change the content, just the packaging. The Catholic Church needs a pope who will communicate timeless messages in a new way. A good start would be reforming the machinery of the church, known as the Curia. The press office needs a total overhaul (incredibly, it still closes for a siesta at lunch), and the church needs to drop its heavy reliance upon the Italian language (when Benedict visited Poland, he spoke in Italian rather than the more widely used English or German).

Crucially, the personnel and outlook desperately need to be internationalized, to shift from a Eurocentric point of view to one that feels more embedded in the Americas, Africa and Asia. An obvious step toward that would be the appointment of a pope from somewhere other than Italy -- Ghanaian Peter Turkson and Nigerian Francis Arinze are two obvious contenders. The conservative theology of Turkson is a great example of how a rebrand wouldn't necessarily mean compromising the faith; liberals might cheer his ethnicity but despise his conservatism on matters sexual.

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Whoever makes it to the Holy See, his priority must be to bring a sense of order to chaos and make it clear that the church is getting to grips with its problems. As Jeff Anderson writes, he must deal honestly and openly with the problem of child abuse -- naming names and welcoming independent investigators. He must travel and engage with different faiths. He must articulate truths in language that doesn't turn people off. He must make it clear that the church is open and welcoming to women. He must continue Benedict's good work in encouraging beauty and prayer in liturgy.

All of this can be done while renewing orthodoxy rather than rejecting it -- preserving the timeless authority of church doctrine. The experience of the early years of John Paul II's pontificate proves that energy and charisma can revitalize the church without surrendering entirely to modern thinking.

Finally, we must thank Benedict for making this rebranding possible. By stepping aside early, he has given Catholics a chance to prepare thoughtfully and carefully for the future. It was a humble act that might prove his greatest legacy to the church that he so dutifully served.

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