03/13/2013 02:07 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

The Cardinals Can't Shut the World Out

"Extra omnes!" went the cry ("everybody out!") as the cardinal electors of the Roman Catholic Church began the conclave. They will pray, eat, sleep, deliberate and vote in private until a required two-thirds majority has settled on the next Roman pontiff. The Vatican has been happy to let us know how serious they are about security, anxious to tell the world they can indeed keep a secret -- including a sophisticated cellphone jamming system I could certainly use for my early morning intro class.

But no cardinal is fooled by the slamming door; they all know they cannot keep the world out.
It would seem that their most pressing order of business is to elect someone to address the Vatican's internal disarray. Surely the cardinals are chagrined by the Vatican's permanent spot on the Italian gossip pages, with reports of careerism, petty spats and serious financial questions, many of which suggest, sotto voce, moral failings of all varieties.

We need a CEO, goes the thinking. We need someone who can clean house, someone who can get the trains, if not "running on time" at least on the rails and not crashing into one another. We need someone who can re-orient the inner workings of the Church outward. The Curia is not simply slow to act; the problem is that many of its actions betray its vision as obtuse and parochial. The cardinals get this, and they know that such a re-set would be good all around; a more professionally run Vatican would in fact be a more pastorally focused Vatican.

Yet these problems are not new. The new regime will surely take some of them on, some will get fixed, some not. The Vatican has stumbled forward through much worse.

The real issues are not internal; they lie outside the doors that have shut so decisively.

Proximately, the sea-change in sexual norms that began at mid-century continues to challenge the Church's narrative of gender, marriage and family. In terms of same-sex relationships, mass culture in the U.S. had barely arrived at "tolerable" before we all moved on to "celebrated." Church insiders argue that conflict about these norms is a classic "first world problem" that ignores the sensibilities of the growing numbers of Catholics in the global south. But while church leaders in Africa and Latin America and Korea and China continue the Church's conservative line, their flock have smartphones, and their smartphones get "Modern Family."

These changes are but a symptom of greater instability to come, an instability born of an incessant barrage of information that both introduces the unknown and relativizes what we know. We now know more about wealth inequality than ever, and we can watch it shift in real time. It would be a nuisance if my back account were hacked; it would be a disaster if the financial system fell to a cyber-attack. We now refer to the ongoing barrage of snow/flood/wind reports as "weather porn" -- until we are sobered by the pictures of the tsunami or the ravaged coastline or the map detailing the extension of the drought.

For the next pope, rapid external change, fueled by our interconnected culture, will shape the Catholic Church more than the Vatileaks scandal or even the sexual abuse crisis. In fact, this shaping has already begun, as these external trends are mirrored in the resignation of Benedict, an act that he would have found unthinkable just 50 years ago. Instead, things changed, the external context for the papacy shifted -- and the resignation happened. However, it might be spun as a careful move to protect the institution, it was in fact a leap into the unknown, a sign of a new moment in the Church.

The next pope might think he was elected to shape up the ship, but I hope that instead he decides to take the helm and scan the horizon.