Worth Reading: Does the Holy Spirit Choose the Pope?

by | Mar 11, 2013 | Papal Election

Light at St. Peters BW by MarcelGermain at Flickr
Light at St. Peters by johnwilliamsphd at Flickr

Light at St. Peter’s

I think it’s just a fact of human nature that we all pick up certain patterns of talking, particular pithy phrases, as we move through life. Sometimes we invent them ourselves; other times we steal them from favorite authors or mentors or whatever.

Being a Jesuit, perhaps it’s no surprise that my own pithy phrases usually have something to do with God. Among the best I’ve collected over the years (and I wish I could remember where I got it) is this: God respects our freedom much more than we do.

It’s always good to get some confirmation of the truth of one of these phrases, and I was feeling fortunate earlier today when I stumbled across one such confirmation. And I’m sure that, if you had to guess from whence the confirmation came, high amongst your guesses would be: another Jesuit. And the likely topic? Given the topics of conversation these days, I’m sure you’d have said the Papal election.

Good on you for two correct guesses, because yesterday (over at Time’s website) James Martin, SJ wrote about whether the Holy Spirit is the one choosing the next pope, or not.  His answer?  “Yes, No and It Depends.”  Well, what did you expect from us Jesuitical Jesuits!

But Jim has excellent reasons for such equivocation, and it’s because Jim, like our God, is respectful to the inner workings of that odd human quality we call freedom. In Jim’s words:

Catholics believe that the Spirit will help us choose paths that are for the benefit of ourselves and the community. To take one example, we choose to go to a funeral of a relative and give up two tickets to a coveted concert or sporting event because it ‘feels right.’ That ‘small still voice’ that the Old Testament talked about still helps to guide us.

An important qualification: we are free to listen or not listen to that voice, and act or not act on it. God gives us free will. We are never ‘forced’ to make a decision, moral or not.

The strange thing is, God’s refusal to force us to choose one way rather than another applies not just to events of small import, but even to events like… Papal elections. Humans can make mistakes, and while the Holy Spirit is active in forming our minds and hearts so that we make less mistakes, God will not take away our ability to make them. In making his case for such Jim turns, unsurprisingly, to only living person on planet Earth who used to hold the title of Pope – Pope Emeritus Joseph Ratzinger.  Because it was he who, well before his own election, wrote:

I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair [of electing a Pope], but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us… Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.

There’s angst in those words, because it means mistakes can be made.  But there’s comfort as well: the odd comfort that like it or not, in the God-us relationship, we can actually rely on other party to respect our freedom.


Paddy Gilger, SJ

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