News Story

The Next Papacy

March 11, 2013—As the College of Cardinals prepares to select a new pope, Dean of Georgetown College Chester Gillis shares his thoughts on the papal elections and the future of the Catholic Church.

Cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to elect the next pope. This year, 115 cardinals will participate in the conclave, which is held in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI appointed 67 of the current cardinals eligible to vote, and the other 48 cardinals were appointed by John Paul II.

According to Gillis, a theologian whose research often focuses on the papacy, the cardinals are unlikely to choose someone significantly younger despite the resignation of Benedict XVI, who was elected at the age of 78. “John Paul II was 58. With longevity now, if you put someone in the papacy at 58, you could easily have him for 30 years,” Gillis said. “It’s too long to put your stamp on the papacy. My bet is that it will be someone in his 60s or early 70s.”

As the names of likely candidates are debated in the media, Gillis believes that the Italian cardinals, who constitute the largest voting block from one country, will want to see the papacy return to an Italian. “I think it’s going to be an Italian,” he said. “People who grew up with a Polish pope and a German pope think that’s normal. For 300 years before that, it was always an Italian,” he continued.

With the Catholic population growing in Latin America and Africa, there is much speculation that the cardinals will choose a pope from one of those regions. However, Gillis believes that the cardinals will consider many other important factors. “I think there are other qualities that will trump geography,” he said.

“If the person is from one of those regions of the world but doesn’t have the language and management skills, and the confidence of the cardinals in his vision and theology, then he’s not going to be elected,” he explained.

As head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, the papacy requires the skills associated with most chief executive positions. “The outgoing personality is helpful, but the linguistic skills are a must,” he continued. “If you don’t speak Italian well and fluent English, I don’t think you have a chance.” Gillis noted that many of the eligible cardinals do satisfy these requirements.

The new pope will need to continue to address the sexual abuse scandals in Catholic parishes, but he will face other issues, such as a shortage of priests and the declining number of people who identify as Catholic, particularly in North America, Europe, and Latin America.

“Many Catholics of all ages do not identify with the Church, and it’s a huge challenge,” Gillis said. “Historically, evangelization meant spreading the gospel to places where it was not known. The evangelization that the Church is doing now is to its own. It’s to keep them Catholic.”

The Church will also need to attend to its relationship to women. “Women are often the primary carriers of religion and spirituality in the family. If the Church alienates women, and it has already done so for some time, it will pay a high price,” he explained.

Gillis does not expect sweeping changes during the next papacy in response to calls for reform in the Catholic Church. “Unlike contemporary technological culture and society, the Church moves at a glacial pace. You are not likely to get radical reform with the next pope, because he will almost certainly be ideologically and theologically aligned with Benedict XVI,” he said.

Gillis believes that the pope emeritus has left a more conservative Church as his legacy, but his resignation may also leave a changed view of the papacy. Although a pope may resign according to canon law, that choice had not been exercised since 1415 when Gregory XII resigned. Benedict XVI is illustrating how one can take on the position and then retreat back into private life. “This means that the pope is not ontologically the pope, but functionally the pope,” Gillis explained.

“This resignation underscores that while the papacy endures and the appointment is technically for life, the man who holds the office may step down. That, too, will be on the minds of the cardinal electors.”

—Elizabeth Wilson


Please direct media inquiries for Dean Chester Gillis to Joshua Speiser, director of communications, at 202-687-7355 or