03/04/2013 11:06 am ET Updated May 04, 2013

Conclave Considerations

As the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church gather in Rome this week for their "congregations" that precede the papal election conclave, they're getting plenty of advice from people of all persuasions about what kind of pope the Church and the world expect at this moment in human history.

As the lay leader of one of the Church's ministries in higher education, Trinity Washington University, I share the concern and hope for the new leader's governance abilities, broad world view and pastoral personality.

As a lifelong Catholic woman who has witnessed the real life of the U.S. Church "on the ground" with families and friends, parishioners and Catholic school teachers, deeply devoted nuns and priests and laity collaborating across the generations to advance the pragmatic work of our faith, I have a stubborn optimism that this moment is less a "crisis" in the faith, as some commentators insist, but rather, a time of real transformation for the organization of the Catholic Church as it struggles to bring its structures, policies and processes into the modern age.

In order to seize the opportunity of transformation to make the Church a more vital force for good in contemporary human society, the new pope must be able to achieve significant progress on these issues early in his new papacy:

1. Atone the Child Sex Abuse Scandal: Nothing has done more to damage the Church's credibility with faithful mainstream Catholics "in the pews" than the child sex abuse scandal. Dismissing the ongoing concerns as figments of some lefty political agenda is naïve. The ladies in the front pews with their rosaries --- the pillars of the parishes, the mothers of the altar boys for generations like my sainted mother (God rest her soul) who could not escape the lingering fear that perhaps something bad had happened to one of her sons --- this is the place where the scandal has wreaked permanent damage with the Church's credibility among the faithful. Lose the mothers, lose the teachers.

Mere atonement is not enough; paying out settlements is hardly adequate. The pope and bishops must agree to a significant, permanent symbol of penance for these most grievous sins --- not only the horror of the abuse, but the malignant corruption of the cover-ups --- along with pervasive change in Church policies and practices universally to ensure that such horrors never happen again. The latter cannot be up to individual bishops; the pope has the power to order canonical change globally, and he should do so immediately.

2. Fix the Priesthood: To the extent a real crisis exists in the Church, the center of the crisis is clearly with the condition of the priesthood. Too many scandals, too few applicants, a lifestyle that appears, to the modern world, to be repressed, outmoded, unlikely to be a good choice for many good men who might otherwise make great priests. Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien is the latest tragic example of the priesthood in crisis.

In my mother's parish in ultra-conservative Philadelphia a few years back, at a Christmas Midnight Mass, the deacon gave one of the most moving homilies I ever heard --- and it was an ode to his wife and children in the front pew, a commentary on the example of the Holy Family in Nazareth and how his family tried to emulate that simplicity and goodness. Even mom was wowed, not an easy thing! That married deacon surely would make a great priest, and I can imagine so many others who would fill the growing void.

3. Reverence the nuns: Whomever at the Vatican was responsible for the inquisition on the nuns should be sent, for his penance, to a year of travel with the Nuns on the Bus. Religious women across the centuries were strong enough, courageous enough, visionary enough to build the Church's great ministries in Catholic schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and social centers throughout the world. Yes, they ruffled more than a few hierarchical feathers along the way, good for them! They are still living the Gospel imperative to work for social justice in places that often have no priests and quite often dismal living conditions. They live in the same poverty as the people they serve, risking everything to give witness to the Gospel. These women deserve nothing but respect, reverence -- and some help in their elder years. Perhaps some official penance could be meted out in the form of a decent retirement plan for religious women.

4. Restore Catholic education in the cities: At least in America, one of the greatest losses for the Church has occurred in the flight of parishes and schools from the inner cities. Yes, of course, there are many pragmatic reasons for this phenomenon --- the second and third generations of white ethnic immigrant Catholics moved to the 'burbs where new Catholic parishes are thriving. But here's the conundrum: the Catholic Church around the world is thriving among people of color in Africa and South America, so why can't the Church figure out how to thrive among American populations of Black and Hispanic citizens? The call to evangelization must bring the Church back to American cities. That will require some creative thought about personnel and budget, but such pragmatic concerns did not defeat the sense of mission and ministry in the past and should not stop serious reconsideration of Catholic education's role in the landscape of contemporary society.

5. Embrace the modern world: Attacking modernity -- including modern thought on a range of important social issues -- does not defend the faith, but rather, weakens the Church in making it appear to be hopelessly out of touch. This does not mean that the Church has to relent in teaching its foundation truths with zeal and conviction. Rather, the new pope has to find the language and means of communication that make the message more compelling and convincing to a world that simply operates differently than even a few decades ago. Democracy, which is a global movement that the Church supports in theory, allows people the freedom to express their opinions, to live as they choose, to make personal choices without state interference. Church moral rules certainly do expect people to make those choices informed by and in accord with moral teachings, but the Church must not seek to restrain democracy and freedom in order to impose its view on how people should live. An effective teacher always wants the best for her pupils, and if students fail, the teacher must ask what she is doing wrong.

Along the pathway to accepting modernity, perhaps a new Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, now almost a half century after the last one's recommendations for change fell on deaf ears, might bring a fresh perspective on this profoundly divisive issue, a signal that the Church is at least willing to engage in serious reflection on modern science and medicine on reproductive issues.

6. Elevate people over prerogative: Too much of the organization's recent time and energy (and money) has gone to the defense of the organization, itself, and its leadership prerogatives. Imagine how captivating it could be if the new pope immediately announced bold initiatives to refocus the Church's considerable intellectual talent, material wealth and moral authority on the most pressing concerns of contemporary civilization: the acute conditions of global poverty and illiteracy that foster terrorism and oppression; the suffering among too many elderly who cannot afford private end-of-life care; the abandonment of children in shameful conditions even in wealthy nations; the pervasive violence in the gun-rich culture; the ongoing sin of racism and hatred based on personal characteristics; global climate change and environmental destruction. These are all themes that come directly from Catholic social teaching, and we can find examples of extraordinary ministries working on these issues across the Church's generations.

But many if not most of those ministries operate with no official Church funding, instead, relying on independent funding from congregations, donations and public grants -- often paying meager salaries and suffering poor working conditions because of under-funding. Imagine how fresh, how modern it might seem if the new pope created the Church's very own innovation fund devoted to supporting the boldest initiatives in social justice work? Such a fund could make the Gates Foundation seem quite modest by comparison.

And what of women in the Church? Women are at least half of the faithful, probably many more. We have always held quite powerful positions as teachers, school leaders, CEOs of the great ministries in health care and education. And of course, women wield considerable power as the mothers and first teachers of succeeding generations of Catholics. Yet, despite the obvious leadership we do hold in the Church, women often feel marginalized, dismissed, either held up on some plaster Madonna pedestal or vaguely feared as Eve with the apple. And we're not there right now in Rome in any of those meetings where the future of our Church hangs in the balance. Women's very absence from the discussion of the new pope speaks volumes about why the men seem, so often, to be hopelessly out of touch with reality.

Should women be priests? I leave that to the men at a higher pay grade to discuss, since the rest of us were told a few years back that we may not discuss it (well, I confess, we do discuss it anyway, subversives that we women really are...). But still, considering the potential for new forms of ministry, imagine how much good the new pope could achieve if he could find new and more vibrant ways to empower women as new apostles preaching the Gospel together with men in a truly transformed Catholic Church.

Women may not be in the conclave, but we can pray that the Holy Spirit will be. The cardinals have an awesome task ahead. A bad choice could set back the cause of the Church's renewal even more. A mediocre choice will only ensure that the Church continues to wallow in the current woes. A truly wise, visionary choice will lead the transformation of the Church to ensure its vitality for generations to come.