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How the Papal Conclave Could Renew Religion: My Two Votes for Pope

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I was asked yesterday on the "Young Turks" TV show how the Vatican could recover its sense of moral and spiritual leadership. First, I acknowledge the depths of the question: The Vatican over the past 42 years has lost any inkling of moral and spiritual respect.

I have written in my last post of the abuses committed by this and the previous popes and curia. The pedophile priest coverup, the financial malfeasance, the silencing of dissent, the destruction of spiritual movements toward social justice and the support of fascist sects -- all of these affirm the historian Lord Action's remark that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Vatican remains an "absolute monarchy" as historian John Julius Norwich names it.

But there is more. In my book, "The Pope's War: How Ratzinger's Crusade Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved," where I document all the above abuses and more, I also make the point that the late and great Dutch Dominican Father Schillebeexks made to me more than 15 years ago when he said: "I and many other European theologians believe the present papacy is in schism."

Why? The past two papacies have been in schism, he said, because they have turned their back on the Second Vatican Council and its principles of justice for the poor, freedom of conscience, the right of theologians to think, the understanding of the church as the people and not just the hierarchy, the priesthood of the laity, the "sensus fidelium," the right of national councils of Bishops to be heard, etc., etc.

If we are correct that the Vatican is in schism, then that means that every Cardinal, bishop and priest anointed over the past 42 years is in schism, and therefore, does not need to be heeded or listened to. One's conscience holds first place, now more than ever. (The recently canonized saint, John Henry Newman, used to say that if pushed to choose between conscience and pope he would "drink to conscience every time.")

And now we have a conclave full of schismatic cardinals voting for another schismatic pope.

Thus, my pope vote goes to... the Dalai Lama.

Such a move would:
  1. Get the Church out of the schismatic pope death spiral;
  2. Allow time for all bishops, cardinals and priests ordained in the past 42 years to get themselves retrained regarding the fundamental principles of the Gospel and of Vatican II and in the tradition of creation spirituality to which Jesus belonged (scholars today finally agreeing he came from the wisdom tradition of Israel);
  3. Allow time to fumigate the very infested buildings and palaces of the Vatican;
  4. Shut the Vatican down for good and reopen it for the museum that it is, while selling off the art treasures in the basement of the current museum and giving the proceeds to the poor.
In short, because the Vatican is so sick and infested with evil spirits (as two Native American elders told me on my last visit to Rome), it is time to admit that in its present configuration history has passed it by, the Holy Spirit has exited, and its usefulness has run out. But electing a person of genuine spiritual and ethical stature such as the Dalai Lama, who also stands for global intelligence and peace and who calls compassion "my religion," would be a genuine act of humility and vision by the voting cardinals. It would also draw us nearer to the real teaching of Jesus and the person who Jesus was.

Electing a non-westerner and a non-Christian who recognizes the spiritual genius of Jesus and the truth of the "Buddha Nature" or "Cosmic Christ" in all beings would refresh the move for interspirituality and interfaith that our planet needs so badly. (A bishop of Rome could be elected, hopefully by the people, who would live in that bishop's place which is the Lateran and preside over the Roman flock meanwhile.) This creative and visionary act by the conclave would help turn the tide of history at this time when our species is in mortal danger of destroying itself by weaponry and wars and/or by continued ecological imperialism, destroying the very nest that feeds and nourishes us.

Now, if the Dalai Lama could not get the required 2/3 vote from this conclave, a second choice that would provide a meaningful message to the world from these cardinals -- schismatic though they be -- would be the following candidate: Sister Joan Chittister of the Benedictine Order.

This one move by the electors would also change the religious map (which SO needs changing!) by declaring that "we, the all-male cardinals who alone lead the Catholic Church, are not, after all, a closed, incestuous, men's club busy beating up on women with ancient rules against birth control and declaring that we and male politicians have the right to tell women what to do with their bodies. We are listening to today's women and recognize that they have intelligence, wisdom and deep spirituality and surely they can lead in religion as they do in every other field."

Overnight, the image of the hierarchical church would improve. Women's oppression and subjugation, a moral issue the world over, would become more visible on our ethical radar. Moreover, since I know Sister Joan, I know that she would wield an axe with both intelligence and courage that would clean out the evil spirits from the Vatican, just as her sister Benedictine Hildegard of Bingen, recently declared Saint and Doctor of the Church, proposed doing in the 12th century (she said the pope was surrounded by "evil men who cackle like hens and scare themselves doing it").

But Sister Joan too would need to shut the place down for spiritual fumigation and get on with retraining all who claim the priesthood or leadership. She would not hesitate, I am sure, to reinvent seminaries more in the spirit of Jesus and values of the "preferential option for the poor" mandated by the Gospels and Vatican II, while allowing women priests, married priests, gay and lesbian priests to step up into interdependent leadership roles. She would return the church to the people of God, which is supposed to be (according to Vatican II and also Hildegard and the Gospels) what it is.

At the same time she would be conscious of the grave sin of papalolatry that so feeds network ratings and television spectacles, but which has nothing to do with real spirituality. Decentralizing leadership lies at the heart of resisting the grave offense of papalolatry.

Finally, such a woman as pope would also have the smarts to let the papacy itself die. She would deconstruct the hierarchical power of patriarchal domination, and empower the people to rise, imbued with God's values of justice and love, to rise and to do so in circles of sharing in tune with the interdependent web of life.