Early this morning, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he’d abdicate the papal throne at the end of the month, which is the first time a pontiff will have stepped down in seven centuries. Such breaking news was bound to set off rampant media speculation about next month's meeting of the College of Cardinals --which will decide Benedict's successor -- and talk in the media about the outgoing bishop of Rome's legacy.
All that is well and good, but on MSNBC, it was the perfect excuse for the liberal network to feature liberal Catholics Chris Matthews and E.J. Dionne scolding the Church as out of touch with modernity on issues of sexuality and women as priests. And that was on top of laughingly treating the election of a new pope as though it were some presidential primary where candidates work feverishly to line up enough delegates to win nomination. Read the relevant transcript below the page break:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: You may think so, but I don't think so. I don't think it's going to be a moment of pivot. I think it's probably planned. I think Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger, wanted to be pope last time. He had to plan to do it. He gave a Mark Anthony speech. We all heard it over during the funeral, which we covered last time. It looks to me like basically he has a candidate, Angelo Skola of Milan, he’s got 67 voters, majority of voters, in the College of Cardinals that he has appointed personally. I think they'll be watching who he wants. If he wants this fellow Skola, he is going to get him. I know the Irish betting odds are on Ouellet of Quebec and Turkson and Sandri of Argentina, but I’m telling you it really looks like Skola is going to be the Pope. And it’s going to happen in about two or three weeks.
ALEX WAGNER: E.J, you write in your – in the Washington Post this morning that this moment, actually – what Benedict has done is arguably the most modernizing decision he’s taken because it emphasizes the responsibilities of a Pope as a leader, and not the aura of the Papacy itself, and you, I think rightfully so, say that the decision could open up a period of soul-searching in the Catholic Church that is, in fact, badly needed.
E.J. Dionne: Right. That point about the most modern thing he did is a quote from Michael Sean Winters, a very smart watcher and student of the Catholic Church. And you know, I was listening to Chris, and I think he has the politics broadly right, but this is kind of Machiavelli versus the Holy Spirit here.
MATTHEWS: Who’s Machiavelli?
WAGNER: Yeah, exactly.
DIONNE: I don't represent the Holy Spirit. I just want to say those are the two views. Because he is right. Skola is the favorite going in, and the question is are all the votes lined up, or is there a real argument among these bishops about the future of the church? Now, let's -- we who are American liberals shouldn't pretend that the Church is going to go racing off to the left side all of a sudden. However, I think that Skola is not the favorite that Benedict was. When Benedict – in last papal election – all the conservatives knew he was their candidate. Not only that, the people who wanted to be Pope in the future knew that he would be the perfect guy to hold on to the Papacy for a while – while their chances improved. And I think that the votes in the first round, the first couple of rounds will likely be more fragmented than they were the last time, which would give a chance to people like Peter Turkson or some others– Ravisi –There are a bunch of names. My American very dark horse is Sean O’Malley of Boston. I say that partly because I'm biased. He was a bishop of my hometown of Fall River. But he’s a guy who has very close ties with Latin American bishops and as in the American election, the Latino vote is very important in this one.
WAGNER: Well, Chris, let's talk about the doctrine of the Catholic Church at this point. I mean, a lot of folks, as E.J. points out in his column too – folks, like Benedict, would end up being more conservative than he actually was. That said, I'm sure there are a lot of liberal Catholics that were looking to him for more guidance. He came out against gay marriage, but he had a fairly progressive stance on poverty.
WAGNER: There was this kind of constant tension between where the Church could go on some these social issues. Do you think that changes? Do you think we can look forward to a slightly more progressive Catholic doctrine going forward?
MATTHEWS: I have to address this as a layman, and I have to do it in political, secular terms, but I think the church broke its pick with Humanae Vitae back with Paul VI. We got meat on Friday – we would’ve rather had birth control. When the pope came out and made birth control a sin and stuck to that policy, even in this age we live in now, I think they lost a lot of people. You know, if you go to Catholic Church every Sunday, you never hear ever, ever, a sermon ever on birth control because the church knows that people who are most faithful to the Church, not all of them, of course, use birth control. And that's part of a loving marriage. Marriage isn't about having sex a few times and having a few kids and that's the end of it. It's about a loving physical relationship for years, til’ death, and sex is a big part of that, and the church is not really thought through that relationship. It's only thought about procreation. So, I would say Humanae Vitae has to be expanded upon, refined, and I would like to see a Pope do it because one of the best ways to avoid abortion, which most people -- including me, would like to avoid, make very rare at least, make that choice a difficult choice rare, is to have common use of birth control. In the church's failure to push birth control or even allow for it morally, they have really held back one of the ways to reduce this prevalence now of the use of abortion as birth control, which many people think is just not really acceptable morally. So, It's a great opportunity to revisit it Humanae Vitae if the next Pope has the courage and the vision and the spirituality I think to take it on. I'm sure E.J. and I agree on this. I hope we do.
WAGNER:I want to bring in our folks here in New York – Leigh [Gallagher] and Jonathan [Capehart]. The abortion question is one thing. The contraception thing is an entirely different piece, and there is the sex abuse scandal piece, which I don't think the Catholic Church has done a particularly good job of handing, and certainly the next pope is going to have to address, Jonathan.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: The next pope will have to address it, but it's a matter of -- I'm blanking on the blank of cardinals that meet -- the conclave that meets.
DIONNE: The College.
CAPEHART: Thank you, E.J. I think that was E.J. The College of Cardinals that decides who the next Pope is. I'm not sure if they're going to be talking about who is the person that's going to best be able to hand the sex abuse scandal in the united states and around the world, but, you know, going to something that Chris talked about, he talked about the -- his frontrunner Skola for Pope, for successor, I'm just wondering where he fits in ideologically with Ratzinger, with Pope Benedict, because, I mean, as E.J. Said, there's not going to be some rush to the left in the new pope, but is the next pope going to be to the right of Ratzinger?
WAGNER: Chris, you know, and E.J., if not to the left, perhaps there can be a pick that sort of more broadly or addresses the growth of the Catholic Church around the world, and we are talking about sort of traditionalists here, and if you look at where the Catholic Church is expanding, it's Latin America. It's the Philippines. It's not old Europe. I mean, certainly that is a powerhouse for Catholicism. Traditionally, historically, and there are a lot of Catholics there, and when you look at the future of Catholicism it's a lot browner and younger than the Catholic Church might otherwise acknowledge.