If it's impossible for any one man to govern a church of more than a billion souls, as the now-resigned Pope Benedict XVI deeply understood, it's time for a serious rethinking of what must be done in Rome, and what can be better left to bishops, priests and laypeople around the world.
Can that radical a change in the Vatican emerge from 115 men chosen by the Vatican, accustomed to looking to the Vatican for guidance, and voting in secret inside the Vatican? That's a lot to ask. But why aim low? Around the world, as the conclave begins tomorrow and reliable information remains scarce, the expectation level is almost comically high.
What the electors are really looking for is "Jesus Christ with an MBA," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a former editor of America, the Jesuit magazine. A great papal job description. But good luck finding that skill set anywhere, let alone in a room of 115 men in scarlet.
In Commonweal, a lay-run journal of opinion, its former editor Peter Steinfels called for the new pope to administer "shock therapy" to the church. That would mean, for example, limiting papal terms to 12 years or age 82. It would mean expanding the College of Cardinals by appointing "cardinal electors," whose only official role in the church would be choosing a pope. At least half of them would be -- gulp! -- women.
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Michael D'Antonio, a former religion writer for Newsday and author of a new book on the sexual abuse crisis, "Mortal Sins," suggests that the cardinals reach outside their own ranks and elect Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Among all the bishops in Ireland, he stood tallest in response to the horrific revelations of sexual abuse there.
But let's be realistic. None of that is likely to happen. Serious change is hard for an institution so rooted in Tradition. Still, you never know.
Given some of the scurrilous popes we've had over the centuries, it would be blasphemous to blame the Holy Spirit for the outcome of every papal election. But we Catholics still believe that the Spirit is guiding the church over the long sweep of history. So, can this conclave produce a pope ready to shake up the church, to help it emerge from the sexual abuse scandal and the management style of Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II? Neither had any stomach for reining in the Vatican bureaucracy.
"I'm not very hopeful," said the Rev. John O'Malley, author of "A History of the Popes" and an eminent church historian at Georgetown University. "The only thing is, there have been these surprises." The surprise I think of is Pope John XXIII, an "interim" pope who turned the church upside-down.
One change O'Malley -- and a lot of Catholics -- would love to see is the Vatican letting bishops arise organically from the people they are called to lead. Instead, for centuries, they've been chosen from afar by the Vatican. "Since Wojtyla, the one qualification has been: Do you agree with me?" O'Malley said. "That's a disaster." The result has been too many charismatically challenged yes-men. But Rome didn't always pick the bishops. "Bishops were from the city, chosen by the city and for the city," O'Malley said. Why not try that again?
And why not make the Vatican smaller and more manageable, by devolving many of its functions to the dioceses or national conferences of bishops? The election of bishops is just one example. Another is the translation of liturgical texts. This kind of shift would honor a core element of Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity: Wherever possible, let the smallest, most local authority govern.
Finally, wouldn't it be inspiring if the new pope looked at today's church and realized that it is as much in need of restoration as it was in the time of St. Francis of Assisi, who heard Jesus tell him: "Repair my church." The new leader of a billion Catholics could even signal a roll-up-the-sleeves attitude by naming himself Pope Francis I. When the Spirit breathes, you never know.
Bob Keeler is a former religion reporter and editorial writer for Newsday.