What to Look for in a New Pope

The Wall Street Journal | Published on March 12, 2013

By George Weigel

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[The Wall Street Journal recently published six views on what sort of leader the next pope should be. This was George Weigel's contribution.]

When conceived in strictly functional terms, democracy demeans itself, and the gears of democratic politics too often freeze, as we have seen in venues ranging from the U.S. Congress to the Greek parliament. Democracy is more than the institutions of democracy; it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make democracy work. That’s been the teaching of the last two popes, and the next pope should drive home that message to democracies old, new and aborning.

In doing so, he would usefully deepen the debate over some of today’s most divisive public policy issues by posing several Lincolnian queries.

Can democracy “long endure” if public policy measures human beings by their utility (and thus by their “cost”) rather than by their inalienable dignity? If utility is the measure of man, no one is safe and the chillingly wicked, eugenic notion of “life unworthy of life” seems less a bad memory from the pre-Nazi German past than a contemporary standard by which to allocate health-care resources.

Thus the new pope would make a major contribution to shoring up the cultural foundations of the democratic project if he would press the case for the inalienable right to life while expanding the church’s already-extensive services for women in crisis pregnancies and those in need of compassionate, dignified end-of-life care. In doing so, he would model a more humane approach to life than the cold pragmatism now eroding the moral fabric of Western democracies.

Can democracy “long endure” if public policy compels religious institutions to be conveyor belts for government “services” that a religious community considers immoral? Or if the state decides who ought to be a religious minister? As an advocate for religious freedom in full and religious freedom for all, the new pope can help to strengthen civil society and its free institutions, which are both elementary schools of democracy and barriers against the encroachment of the Leviathan state.

Can democracy “long endure” if democracies lack a critical mass of citizens who cherish the common good as well as individual freedom, who complement self-reliance with voluntary charitable service to others, and who understand that they have obligations to future generations, not just to me, myself and I? A pope who calls the West out of the sandbox of self-absorption and into a nobler vision of human possibility could do wonders for the democratic project.

The next pope should be, in short, a charismatic, missionary culture warrior, challenging the world’s democracies to rebuild their moral foundations and offering Catholic social doctrine as one tool for that urgent task.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.