03/06/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

Can Any Good Come of It?

We are not moving gently or confidently toward the next conclave. We are staggering toward it. The worldwide Catholic Church, in just the last few weeks, has had to confront some truly ugly scandals.

Consider: In late January, the new Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, had to order his predecessor, Roger Cardinal Mahony, to cease public ministry following the release of thousands of pages of personnel files detailing the Cardinal's role in the cover-up of priestly molestation cases going back to the 1980s. Over the vigorous objections of Los Angeles' Catholics, Mahony insists on voting in the forthcoming conclave. Then, on Feb. 22, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and the only British cardinal of voting age, resigned from office and indicated that he had no plans to vote in the conclave. His decision followed complaints made by several priests that the Cardinal had made unwanted sexual advances towards them. Earlier in February, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, published the story that Pope Benedict's resignation was finally forced by a report made by three trusted cardinals detailing acts of sexual misconduct by Vatican priests. The report, whose contents remain unknown even though its existence has been more or less confirmed, will be delivered to the new pope for, it is hoped, swift action.

Can any good come of this? It is too much to expect sweeping reforms. Women priests, for instance, are simply not in the cards. Still, the situation facing the Church is sufficiently grave that we are entitled to hope for some dramatic actions. The Church -- by which I mean not Catholics alone but all Christians -- can only pray that at least some of the following steps are taken:

1. The Church's government must become less monarchical.

Such a move would be in keeping with the progress of Church history since the latter 19th century. Prior to 1870, the pope was both the spiritual head of the worldwide Catholic Church and the temporal ruler of a large swatch of central Italy (the papal states). With the reunification of Italy in 1870, the papacy's temporal rule was reduced to Vatican City.

Although the loss of the papal states was seen at the time as a transcendent defeat for the Church, it actually proved an incalculable blessing. Stripped of the exigencies of running a small nation-state, a series of far-sighted popes -- Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII, John Paul II and others -- refashioned the papacy into a conscience for the world. The social teaching that these great moral voices articulated helped form the bedrock of the Christian Democracy movement in Europe and Latin America and still furnishes a powerful tool for analyzing the justice or injustice of public policy across the globe.

Recent popes have been less inclined to use the outward symbols of monarchy: No pope since Paul VI has worn the triple tiara and no pope since John Paul I has used the sedia gestatoria, the portable papal throne.

But these are mere outward trappings. We can hope that a new pope reforms the inward sense of entitlement that comes from monarchy. A new pontiff must act in imitation of that very humble, very human, very fallible rock upon whom the Church was built, St. Peter. Yes, the Church has its own legal order and, yes, the Church must enjoy a proper independence from the State. But crimes against children, the sexual violation of the innocents, must be reported to secular authorities. Where such wrong-doing is concerned, there is no room for a monarchical sense of privilege.

2. The Church must become more transparent.

The pedophilia crisis has become a metastasizing cancer precisely because from the outset the Church has not been transparent. Rather than confronting pedophile priests, rather than reporting their transgressions to police, church leaders equivocated and covered-up. It is certainly true that canon law hugely prizes the reputational interests of individuals. But the right to a good name should not be an excuse for blocking cooperation with civil authorities where crimes have been committed.

It is the failure to act transparently that has led ordinary Catholics to ask, "Will we ever get this crisis behind us?" Ordinary Catholics are the ones paying the settlement costs and the attorneys' fees. Ordinary Catholics have a right to expect church leaders to behave appropriately and obey reporting statutes. While it surely must be a sensitive document, the new pontiff would set a good example if he released the report on the misconduct of Vatican priests that has been presented to Pope Benedict. Yes, the seal of confession must be respected. But with that exception acknowledged, not only must the new pontiff clean house, he must be seen to be cleaning house.

3. The new pontiff must creatively address the changes that are reshaping the world.

Perhaps a new ecumenical council is warranted. It would not be too soon. In that great creative period of Church history, the high middle ages, seven ecumenical councils occurred within a span of 190 years (a frequency greater than one every 30 years). Vatican I took place in 1870. Vatican II ran from 1962 to 1965. We are now half a century removed from the Second Vatican Council.

A new council could be a tremendous tool for re-energizing Catholicism. Whatever else it does, it must address the transforming events occurring in the West. On the one hand, atheism has made a comfortable home in the West. It is an atheism, furthermore, with a respectable, honorable intellectual pedigree. Modern atheists look at the material world surrounding them, they grasp the vastness of the cosmos and the inevitability of natural forces, they comprehend quantum mechanics and the general and special theories of relativity, and they see no room for God in their picture of the universe. They view the Bible quaintly, a collection of myths, not unlike the Norse sagas or the Egyptian Book of the Dead. A new Church council needs to establish a dialogue with the scientists and reconcile anew faith and reason.

And on the other hand, we see the rise of the "nones." It is a mistake to criticize or condemn the spiritual richness of these seekers after understanding. The Church must rather look at the nones as an eclectic, creative force, an expression of the native, inborn impulse of women and men everywhere to explore the spiritual dimension of human existence.

Perhaps a new council will enrich Catholic culture. A half-century ago, Flannery O'Connor could employ the tools of modern fiction, telling stories of human transformation that were Catholic without being clumsy about it. And Thomas Merton could speak to the solitude and contemplation of the human soul in ways that crossed confessional boundaries. Perhaps, too, a new council could reopen questions about sexual ethics in the light of modern science and human experience. How long should Aristotle and St. Augustine continue to rule us from the grave?

4. Finally, a new pope might consider the crisis confronting the ministry.

Has the time come to relax the discipline of clerical celibacy? Certainly, if we take seriously the right of Catholics to have regular access to the Eucharist and the other sacraments, we need more priests.

Yes, I understand the arguments for retaining celibacy. The priest signifies the totality of Christ's commitment to the Church by imitating Christ in his lack of worldly attachments. The priest is freed by celibacy to devote himself entirely to the service of the Church and the people entrusted to him.

These are beautiful ideals. But so also is the regular reception of the Eucharist. Many Catholics must wait weeks, or longer, for visits by a priest. There are Catholics plagued by guilty consciences with no one to tell their sins to or grant absolution. There are Catholics dying every day, deprived of the final solace of the last rites. Ordinary Catholics deserve better.

We stand at a momentous time in the Church. Let us pray the cardinals who gather in conclave choose wisely and well.