Let’s face it: Anyone I would want to be pope is not going to get elected. I’m not even sure I want a pope. I spent my first 20 adult years looking for an unjust government I could overthrow without getting thrown in jail and finally found it in the Vatican. I’ve spent the last 25 challenging the structure of the Church while trying to save my own faith–and I have no doubt that the modern papacy is part of the structure, not the faith.
But I’ll engage in the TNR Conclave’s thought exercise; I’ll even take the exercise relatively seriously. I won’t suggest a non-Catholic like Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu or a woman like Sr. Joan Chittister, but there is no way I can recommend a single living cardinal or bishop. For any of them, scratch the surface of what appears to be an unblemished record of advocating social justice and one finds some major problem of integrity. To be ordained bishop, each must explicitly or implicitly agree not to consider ordaining women; and, for the most part, they have turned a blind eye to the death sentence imposed by John Paul II’s opposition to condoms. They play the game.
It’s also true that the people who most influence the Church, the best and the brightest, rarely become popes or cardinals. So I searched the lower ranks for a candidate. I wanted a smart, holy, honest man of the twenty-first century–someone who would move us beyond the fear-driven papacy of John Paul II to a postmodern papacy open to a true engagement with the realities and suffering of our times. The Polish Pope was the cold-war pope, shaped by his fear of communists and feminists. Some thought him modern because he apologized for the way the church treated Galileo. I want a pope who has read Einstein and Thomas Berry. A pope for whom Nelson Mandela is a role model if not a saint and the South African victory over apartheid is a defining moment in the development of our common humanity.
And so I turned to the Dominican friar Albert Nolan. A white, fourth generation South African of English ancestry, Nolan’s thinking and praxis is rooted in South Africa’s political realities and the pain and injustice of apartheid, redeemed by its spiritual legacy of reconciliation and forgiveness. Africa, above all, honors the healer and God knows the Church needs a healer. We were torn apart by the Polish Pope–the good Catholics of Opus Dei against the bad Catholics of liberation and feminist theology.
Nolan is not as well known to the general public as the Latin American liberation theologians and there is no inkling that he has ever been in trouble with the doctrinal police in the Vatican. He did, however, get into trouble in 1984 with apartheid authorities in South Africa who considered his work as a liberation theologian to be subversive. He joined the Dominicans in 1954 and spent his first dozen years in normal priestly pursuits: a doctorate in theology from a university in Rome, chaplain to university students in South Africa, professor of theology. His shift to a more direct link between faith and politics emerged in the 1980s as South African Christians came to challenge the racist state and their own racism. A theology that ignored all this made no sense. Nolan noted: “Very often we wear ourselves out giving answers to questions people are not asking. … By doing so we take no interest in the real questions being asked by Christians today, questions that touch upon issues of poverty, racism, the legitimacy of armed struggles.” Nolan’s inquiry starts from the actual experience of the oppressed themselves. John Paul’s theology was rule bound; Nolan’s is people centered.
In 2004, Nolan was awarded South Africa’s Order of Luthuli for his lifelong dedication to peace and justice. His remarks on that occasion could serve as the model for his first words to the Catholic world. In that speech he spoke generously of the leadership that brought victory: He honored blacks, whites, women, and even communists like Chris Hani and Joe Slovo.
What the South African experience seems to be saying to us here is that justice, peace and reconciliation can be achieved only through good leadership, which does not only mean leadership that is strong and decisive, but leadership that is humble, honest, fearless, and unselfish, a leadership that is based upon a deep personal freedom. In Christian terms we might want to call it “holiness” or “sanctity.” That this should have been found in people who sometimes had little or nothing to do with the Church is a challenge to our theology.
As pope, Nolan would not only challenge us to holiness, he would lift up our hearts, calling on us to grieve for the oppressed and the oppressor alike, to relish human freedom and live it fully, to tell the truth, forgive the oppressors, and empower the oppressed. That was the message of Jesus and His life’s work–and surely the central task of the next pope.