With Pope Benedict XVI's surprising resignation announcement, the world will soon be fixated on a selection process unlike any other. The papal selection process is the opposite of the congressional decision-making process with which most Americans are familiar. Rather than taking an eternity to make a political decision that is responsive to the expediency of the moment, the cardinals responsible for selecting the next pontiff gather in the expediency of the moment when required and expeditiously reach a divine decision that is responsive to the need to preserve timeless principles for eternity.
As someone who attended Benedict's investiture, I am especially moved by the humility evident in his historic decision to abdicate. As a professor of political management, I feel compelled to explain that though the upcoming procedure for picking his successor may appear political, much forethought has been given to keeping it from being so. Let me call your attention to two salient facts about the papal selection process.
Designed to be Devine: My first political staffer, a young woman from the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran Church, told me, "We are as conservative as you Catholics. We don't let the women vote." I replied, "We Catholics only let a little over a 100 men vote, most of whom are in their 70s and more concerned with the judgment of their maker they will soon see than winning a popularity contest."
The selection of the next pontiff is made in the Sistine Chapel with the cardinals staring at Michelangelo's moving painting of the Last Judgment magnificently depicting some heading upward to heaven and others going down to eternal damnation. Anyone who has seen this imposing chamber knows how impactful such a setting can be on the disposition of those within.
While clearly some cardinals may have cultivated relations in hopes of being thought worthy to head the Church, the humility exhibited by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI sets the standard for pontiffs and limits the effectiveness of self-promotion for a post meant to exemplify surrendering your own will to the God you serve.
Designed to Preserve Eternal Truth: It is important to remember that well more than half of the members of the conclave who select the next pontiff were themselves chosen by the predecessor. When selecting clergy to elevate to bishop and cardinal, one thing is clear: the prime criterion for promotion within the church is adherence to the beliefs of the church and not pandering to popular opinions. Make no mistake, the decision to elevate a bishop in New Ulm, Minnesota or Bogota, Columbia is made by the Holy See in Rome. There are few decisions the pope takes more seriously.
Change in the Church means the pope tweeting, not abandoning long-held beliefs.
The Church hopes that the selection process puts preserving the truths entrusted to their protection first and foremost in the minds of sympathetic cardinals. This approach has allowed the Church to survive as the oldest institution in the Western world. As a key foundation for what we think of as the West, the leadership selection process seeks to keep it the concrete upon which modern society is built, not the front door ornament that changes with the seasons.
I am not advocating the papal decision-making process as a replacement for the democracy we struggle to improve today. I believe time has proven that representative governments, with all their flaws and frustrations, are the most responsive to meeting the needs of those they serve. They are also the most durable. Yet there is a difference between secular needs and the divine. While the Church has many goals, the process to determine who leads the Catholic flock has a very essential goal: to ensure that eternal principles remain just that -- eternal.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. As the head of the first and foremost school of politics, he complements and critiques the political strategies of both the left and right while advocating win-win politics, public affairs and global relations. Kennedy is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota, served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).