Image: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will relinquish his office at the end of February, an event that has not been seen since the 13th century. As the outgoing pope delivered his final Sunday blessing this week, the Conclave prepares to meet to elect his successor (see this neat (if imperfectly translated) graphic). By the time the Papal Conclave convenes in March, the “media conclave” will have cast scores of votes electing the next Bishop of Rome.

The rumors were barely confirmed before lists of non-European priests were bandied about as potential successors, the subtext being that it sure would be nice for the church to have a black pope. What progress we could mark if only the Bishop of Rome were a native of Ghana! Now, there is no reason why a South American or African (or Asian or Canadian or Iraqi) cardinal should not be among the candidates for the office. It is a curious fact that so many Italians have held the post, and even the two recent exceptions were Europeans. Indeed, this criticism resonates with the old Protestant criticism of the Papacy as simply a player in the Game of Thrones.

So now I add my own voice to the chorus: the new Pope should be an ordained Protestant minister.

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne’s latest column has inspired me to make this bold call. In his column, he calls for the selection of a woman – specifically, a nun – as the next pope. His chief arguments are practical: a nun would emphasize the church’s mercy work and wrap velvet around the church’s cold iron dogma on “women’s” issues like abortion and contraceptives. He also asserts uncritically that a female pope would resolve the tension between Catholic veneration of Mary and the church’s hierarchical strictures.

My call for a protestant pope sees his utilitarianism and raises. Protestants are conspicuously more lenient on contraceptives. We respect Mary but do not “venerate” her in the beatific sense. And hey! Some protestant churches even ordain women. Looks like we can all win here, E.J.!

Hoping to flesh out my proposal with some of Dionne’s further arguments, I was a bit crestfallen as I read on. Nowhere does Dionne address the reasons the church maintains a celibate male priesthood, leaving readers to wonder whether he thinks there are any. In one breezy paragraph, he explains the qualifications canon law places on the papacy and in the next assures readers that the Vatican could simply consecrate the selected woman as a bishop in order to make her eligible. Well, if that’s all that’s in the way…

One might suspect Dionne is being intentionally provocative when he says that he is “running ahead of the Spirit on this one.” But by the end of his article, it becomes clear that his advice is tragically sincere:

I hardly expect the cardinals to follow my advice on this. But I hope that they at least consider electing the kind of man who has the characteristics of my ideal female pontiff. The church needs a leader who has worked closely with the poor and the outcast, who understands that battling over doctrine is less important for the church’s future than modeling Christian behavior — and who sees that the proper Christian attitude toward the modern world is not fear but hope.

Is that what the church needs? I likewise have no illusions that the cardinals will heed my call. Perhaps then they should consider electing the kind of Catholic who has the characteristics of my ideal protestant minister. The church, after all, needs a leader steeped in presuppositional apologetics or who has experience writing sufficiently vague doctrinal statements so as not to alienate too many people – and who sees that the proper Christian attitude toward salvation is not Tradition but Scripture.

I had a sneaking feeling I would part company with Dionne eventually. I’m no canon law expert, but I will hazard to say that the male celibate priesthood is rooted in the church’s teachings on human nature and the sacerdotal office. Dionne’s blind spot  is created by his own conception of what counts as “progress” and a specific conceptualization of gender equality, one that the Catholic Church emphatically does not share. (Catholics ardently proclaim the equal dignity of all persons, they just also affirm the different natures of men and women.) There is no doubt that Catholic teaching is at odds with much modern thought, and that many self-described Catholics normally choose the world’s wisdom over their church’s teachings. But that is no excuse for slipshod and imperialist argument.

You see, we believe along with Catholics that the central malady of mankind is spiritual. If you are a run-of-the-mill Western public intellectual, you seize on Jesus’s words to care for the least of these and read in your own materialism. If what Jesus says is true – and it is! – then there is no better way to care for our downtrodden neighbors than by advancing the kingdom of God on Earth. Feeding the hungry in His name is part of that campaign, but no more so than proclaiming the Word from the pulpit and shepherding the flock in truth and love. If the Lord of Hosts has revealed eternal truths and entrusted them to His people, suddenly “batting over doctrine” looks less like petty in-fighting and more like an essential for survival.

Articles like Dionne’s should force us all to check our blind spots, as though we were watching the car in front of us change lanes without looking. We tend to contort every story so that it fits our own agenda, that it somehow can be brought to bear on our own peculiar system of values. This is symptomatically egotistical and analytically sloppy, but for those of us who were bought at a price, it is inexcusably uncharitable. No one is seriously calling for the election of a protestant as pope, but how much of our conversation fails on the same level as Dionne’s?

The worst offenders when it comes to church matters are usually those outside it, typically lefty pundits and Manhattan-bred news media. But we’re not immune. Certain stripes of evangelical can be awfully uncharitable when it comes to the Roman Catholic church (I was almost one of them for a time). And even if we are suitably cautious when discussing church matters, too often we fail to understand the values of non-Christians or our political adversaries. If it sounds laughably naive to tell the Vatican to select a nun as pope, you should think about what it sounds like when someone says that “the Bible” determines state marriage policy.

We want others to understand our worldview and assumptions before they engage us. We must therefore do so unto others.


  1. Great piece! One of my favorite past-times is giggling at the news commentators essentially wondering when the Pope is going to get on with history stop being so Roman Catholic. (facepalm) I’m a freakin’ Prostestant and the silliness of it all kills me.

  2. I think its good to remember in all this that the Roman Catholic Church does actually invite non-Catholic CHristians to feel and express a stake in the papacy. This is the clear teaching of Vatican II and of John Paul II in his encyclical on CHristian unity. I like to see Protestants share their thoughts because a key purpose of the papacy is to try to foster unity among Christians. I did this post of key quotes from John Paul II about Christian unity.

  3. …as I read, three comments, yeah, four responses:

    1) Thanks, S.L. You’re kinda getting the point more right than a lot of “Catholic” commentary.

    2) next time someone asks me to take E.J. Dionne seriously as a voice among Catholics, I’ll have to go find that link again. It’s all the refutation I’d need.

    3) the celibate male priesthood is not dogmatically rooted in “human nature” but in Christ’s actual choices in constituting His Church. The Church has no authority to constitute itself any other way than the way Christ did. Any theology on the subject is a *result* of that constitution; it is faith seeking understanding.

    4) most Bishops of Rome are Italian because they are Bishops of Rome; the term “ultramontane” in its linguistic (though not its polemical) sense refers precisely to the *unusual* nature of having a Bishop of Rome from the other side of the Alps. Not sure whether S.L. was trying to be sly, here, or just missed the significance. All things being equal, the Bishop of Tulsa is likely to be from Oklahoma, or at least from the Midwest, or almost certainly from the U.S. (and long associated with the Midwest and with Oklahoma). That’s just good pastoral sense. The international nature of the Roman Curia, though, which has all of the churches (i.e., each bishop’s church with all its parishes) to maintain in communion, has gradually lent itself to a more global-seeming papacy; nonetheless, on a certain level, the Bishop of Rome is still a priest who performs sacraments and gives teaching in Rome.

  4. Thank you both for those helpful comments. I agree that Christian unity is something to which we are all called. I did not mean to say that non-Catholics should keep silent. I was using Dionne’s inanity as a springboard for a lesson on our own charity.

    As to the celibate male priesthood – do you have a catechism or encyclical reference? It is hard to see that Jesus himself instituted a celibate male priesthood any more than, say, he instituted a nonsacerdotal Jewish pastorate, or something like that. I am NOT trying to pick a bone here; I am interested in how the Catholic church itself explains the doctrine. I hope to comply with my own advice in this column!

    The pastoral nature of the office of Bishop of Rome does help explain why a Roman (as it were) would hold the office more regularly. Understanding the Holy See as a “first espicopacy” also helps explain some. I still think it is curious that there are so many Italian cardinals, or for that matter American cardinals. There may be reasons why particular nationalities self-select for various roles – I don’t mean to say that it is some kind of plot. I’d be interested in thoughts on this as well.

  5. Ref. CCC 1577 – 1580. Celibacy is specifically addressed in 1579.

    Celibacy for Catholic priests is a normative discipline (as opposed to being a doctrine), but there are exceptions. Some married Protestant ministers have converted and become Catholic priests. See Fr. Longenecker on Patheos. My understanding though is that they cannot remarry if their wife dies.

    1577 deals with the male-only priesthood as a doctrine handed down from Christ, although it doesn’t go into depth. For more on that, google JP2’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

    This is the same for Eastern Christians – although I think married priests are more common, and a married Catholic could be ordained as a priest in the Eastern Rites.

  6. Mr. Whitesell,

    I wanted to thank you heartily for this piece, as an ex-Reformed turned Catholic guy. Charity even in disagreement–and Heaven doubts I know anything about it–is about respecting one’s dialogue partner in his or her self-understanding, even when the goal is to persuade the other to a new definition of one thing or another.


    We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of church.1 We are not speaking here of the hypocrites, who are mixed in the church along with the good and yet are not part of the church, although they are outwardly in it.2 We are speaking of the body and the communion of the true church which must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the church.

    The true church is to be recognized by the following marks: It practises the pure preaching of the gospel.3 It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.4 It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.5 In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God,6 rejecting all things contrary to it7 and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.8 Hereby the true church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it.

    Those who are of the church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour,9 flee from sin and pursue righteousness,10 love the true God and their neighbour11 without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works.12 Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life.13 They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him.14

    The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.15 It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases. It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.16

    These two churches are easily recognized and distinguished from each other.

    1. Rev 2:9. 2. Rom 9:6. 3. Gal 1:8; 1 Tim 3:15. 4. Acts 19:3-5; 1 Cor 11:20-29. 5. Mat 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:4-5, 1 Cor 5:13; 2 Thes 3:6, 2 Thes 3:14; Titus 3:10. 6. John 8:47; John 17:20; Acts 17:11; Eph 2:20; Col 1:23; 1 Tim 6:3. 7. 1 Thes 5:21; 1 Tim 6:20; Rev 2:6. 8. John 10:14; Eph 5:23; Col 1:18. 9. John 1:12; 1 John 4:2. 10. Rom 6:2; Phil 3:12. 11. 1 John 4:19-21. 12. Gal 5:24. 13. Rom 7:15; Gal 5:17. 14. Rom 7:24-25; 1 John 1:7-9. 15. Acts 4:17-18; 2 Tim 4:3-4; 2 John 9. 16. John 16:2.

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