An American priest and Catholic Church historian said Tuesday the 115 cardinals tasked with picking the next pope want a man who has both keen evangelical and managerial skills. In short, Father Thomas Reese said, they need "Jesus Christ with an MBA."
Reese, however tongue-in-cheek, managed in those five words to sum up the challenge facing the so-called princes of the Catholic Church, the cardinals, who have already begun wrestling with the various, and widely disparate, qualifications required in a pontiff to replace Pope Benedict XVI.
Of course, as Reese expounds in a commentary published in the National Catholic Reporter, "the problem ... is that he died, rose from the dead, and left town to join the family business. Frankly, there is no one in the College of Cardinals that fits the job description. Jesus may have founded the church, but he left it to human beings to run."
In spite of the Church's best efforts to move past the child sex abuse scandal, victims of that abuse are still demanding justice. The next pope will need to be someone who can shift the presiding narrative of the Church away from apologies (without appearing insensitive to the victims) and back to the preferred topic and goal of growing congregations.
"What we really need is somebody who can communicate the gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people in the 21st century," Reese said in an interview with Reuters. "That is what we are supposed to be about, the message of Jesus and that is an attractive message but it can get all buried in our churchiness."
What has buried that message in practical terms is months of headlines about corruption at the very top levels of management at the Vatican Bank, bitter infighting and rivalries among the cardinals and those closest to the now-retired Pope Benedict, and deceitful cover-up maneuvers by bishops trying to hide allegations of sexual abuse.
Jason Horowitz has covered the Vatican for the Washington Post since the so-called "Vatileaks" scandal erupted last year, when a huge number of Benedict's private documents -- pilfered by his butler and handed over to an Italian journalist -- were published in a best-selling book. It spilled the Vatican's dirty laundry out into the square of public opinion.
Horowitz agrees that the cardinals face a daunting task, given that the various electors have "competing priorities" in what they're looking for in a new pope.
"They all see that there's a problem of governance here in Rome and they all understand that in order to tackle the really big problems around the world, there's a ship at home that needs to be in order," he says.
The Vatican has essentially functioned for centuries under a system where, "there's none of the usual accountability, responsibility, things that you're used to in the United States or in corporate America," explains Horowitz.
His private discussions with Vatican insiders make him doubt that even the recent scandals can turn 2,000 years of Church tradition completely on its head in the name of transparency and reform. But Horowitz believes there may be a consensus among the cardinals that adopting some of the those business norms, or, "a little bit of the ethos of a corporation, might not hurt to clean things up."
That's what some of the cardinals think should be the primary focus in picking a new pope. But Horowitz notes that for others, the first priority is to find, "someone who has a really human touch, someone who can raise the office back up to where it was with John Paul II."
Horowitz wouldn't say who he thought the next pope would be -- in his mind, too, there is no clear "Jesus Christ with an MBA" among the most discussed "papabili."
He would say, however that an example of someone who might appeal, given his new-world roots (the Church's best prospects for growth are in Latin America and Asia), and the fact that has holds a senior position at the Vatican, is Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
The cardinals "all know him because they ... kind of have to report to him, so that's one person who is talked about very often," ventured Horowitz.
But in another pointed reminder of how hard it will be for the cardinals to make room for priorities other than the Church's scandals as they weigh up the candidates, Ouellet himself was named by a British newspaper Monday as a senior Vatican official who allegedly helped cover up sexual allegations against Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien.
O'Brien stepped down as Archbishop of Edinburgh and Glasgow and begged out of the conclave just days ago, publicly admitting to inappropriate sexual behavior.
If it all sounds more like the trappings of scandalous Washington politics than the inner workings of a 2,000 year old religious institution, Horowitz, who has covered both, agrees. He notes with a laugh, "they're actually quite similar."
For his part, Reese sees the challenge facing the cardinals as two-parted: they must agree on what traits to look for in the next pope but they must also find consensus on defining those very traits - something easier said than done.
A prospective pope may be valued for his intellect, for example, but there are numerous theological strains among church scholars, some more conservative than others and which stray little from traditional, classical theology.
Reese argues that some of the best popes "took the best intellectual thought of their times and used it to explain Christianity to their generations."
"This means not electing another intellectual, as the cardinals did in the last two conclaves, but electing someone who will allow all the other theologians in the church to do their jobs without persecution," Reese writes. "What is needed is a pope who listens as well as teaches, a pope who encourages creativity and is not expected to have all the answers, a pope who is good at consensus-building, not just giving orders."