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April 14, 2005 Edition

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The next pope: He is not elected by opinion polls

Media coverage of the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II has been outstanding. The outpouring of affection for our beloved Holy Father from all corners of the world has been impressive.

This has been a shining moment for the Catholic Church, an opportunity for people to learn more about the Catholic faith and our traditions.

Links to coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II

Opinion polls. However, as we get closer to the conclave, the media has started to publish articles about the selection of the next pope. Several articles have included information from opinion polls taken among Catholics and people of other faiths about the next pope asking: What kind of pope should we get? Should he continue John Paul II's traditional views? How should the next pope change church teaching?

Asking such questions reveals a lack of understanding of the way the Catholic Church operates. Our church was founded by Jesus Christ and is based on the teachings revealed in Sacred Scriptures and over 2,000 years of tradition.

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The basic truths of our faith have not changed. And the pope cannot change those truths, no matter what he may feel personally. As the successor of Peter, he must stand firm and not be swayed by public opinion polls.

The Catholic Church can change the way it interprets some teachings based on new knowledge and understanding. This has certainly happened in the areas of science and technology. The church can also adjust its methods of teaching, witness the use of modern means of communication. But the basic message remains the same.

Chosen by God. While Catholics themselves may have differing views of what kind of pope they prefer, we know that this is not a popularity contest. The cardinals - inspired by the Holy Spirit - will elect the person chosen by God.

What bothers me with the opinion polls is the notion that people of other faiths - some with little or no knowledge of the Catholic Church - should be asked for input on the selection of the leader of our church! Would pollsters ask who the next Dalai Lama should be? Or a chief rabbi or Muslim leader? I would not feel qualified to reply to a poll about selecting leaders for other faith traditions, and it doesn't seem right to ask non-Catholics to give their opinions on our leaders or our teachings!

Lack of knowledge. There is often a lack of knowledge of the Catholic Church revealed in the poll questions themselves. An Associate Press poll said the majority of American Catholics want the laity to have a greater voice in the church. Yet, since the Second Vatican Council, the laity have had a greater voice in the church. Although final decisions rest with the hierarchy, there is much consultation among the laity (although we cannot change basic church teachings).

We have pastoral councils and finance councils in every parish. There are lay people involved on diocesan pastoral councils and corporate boards; state Catholic conferences; national bishops' advisory councils; and in offices and agencies at the national and Vatican levels.

Perhaps all Catholics need to be better educated about our own faith and how the church operates, so we, in turn, can be better informed witnesses to our faith in the world.

Pope John Paul II certainly did his part to "open wide the doors to Christ." Inspired by God, we know our next Holy Father will continue in his footsteps. Let us pray as the cardinals gather for wisdom in discerning God's will - and ignoring opinion polls!

Mary C. Uhler, editor

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Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
Offices: Bishop O'Connor Catholic Pastoral Center, 702 S. High Point Road, Madison
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