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Cardinal Chernenko?

Andrew Brown
19 April 2005

Does anyone now remember Konstantin Chernenko? In the last decades of Soviet communism, a succession of old men arrived at the helm whose one merit was that they were as sclerotic as the system they served. Their Politburo comrades and the wider Soviet nomenklatura could rely on them to resist change to the last gasp – as indeed they did, however artificially prolonged that gasp might have been.

The Politburo was right to fear change more than anything. This was confirmed when the brave Mikhail Gorbachev finally took hold of the levers of power, tried to reform the Soviet Union – and brought the whole brittle system crashing down.

The analogy with Joseph Ratzinger, the new Pope Benedict XVI is not exact. For one thing, a life of celibacy and temperance means that a 78-year-old pope is going to be in much better physical shape than an aged recovering Stalinist could be. But it’s hard to escape a suspicion that the cardinal electors were concerned above all else to avoid choosing a Pope Mikhail Gorbachev the First (and Last). They were quite prepared to settle for a Kremlin-style succession rather than risk the kind of change which, starting with the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, had nearly blown the church apart.

The one thing the new pope stands for is hierarchy, and the resolute suppression of anything like democracy within the church. In particular, the opinions of educated lay people are to be shunned – a loathing which is heartily reciprocated. The only time I ever saw him, at a lecture he gave in Cambridge, some of the theology faculty boycotted the event in protest against his treatment of inquiry within their discipline.

The fear of change can make perfect sense. If you believe that the Catholic church can only maintain its hold on human minds by force and fraud, then electing the man who used to run the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the bureaucratic guarantor of Catholic doctrine – is a natural thing to do. The road to the top in the Kremlin, after all, used to be through the KGB. But to follow the same logic is an odd process for faithful Catholics.

Also in the openDemocracy debate on the Catholic church and democracy: articles by Neal Ascherson, Lavinia Byrne, Laura Greenhalgh, Ariel Dorfman, Timothy Radcliffe, Michael Walsh, Joanna Bogle, and Arthur Waskow

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The great difference between the Catholic church and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is that the church remains a voluntary institution. There is hardly anywhere left in the world where an ambitious young man would join the church for the sake of his career, though there are still places where he might join Opus Dei. This changes the whole equation.

Mikhail Gorbachev discovered, when he tried to appeal to the idealism of the masses, that he was the last communist. No one but him believed a word of it. That’s why his experiment proved fatal, and why the cardinals seem keen to avoid travelling the same route. But it is in the nature of Kremlin successions that they only postpone the problem, and not for very long. At some point, you choose a reformer because nothing else has worked. When this happens, Pope Mikhail I will find that there are something like a billion of the faithful who actually believe. But perhaps the cardinals already know that. This is the thing that really frightens them. Too much belief can destroy an organisation as surely as too little.

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