Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will retire the papacy on February 28. In hindsight, there were recent signs hinting at this. He made his beloved secretary Georg Gänswein an archbishop, assuring the handsome fellow a post-papal future in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. He promoted the servile head of his household, American James Harvey, to cardinal. These are the kind of loose ends tied up by an aged pope who had years ago stated his willingness to voluntarily vacate the papacy should he no longer be able to fulfill the duties of that office. No one ever expected him to exercise that option, given the obvious delight he took in the ermine, velvet and watered silk that perpetually swathed him as he seemed to float through the serene routine of his seven-year papacy.
From the immaculate soles of his Pradas to the jeweled tip of his gold-threaded mitre, Pope Benedict XVI has been a paragon of gilded denial whose brow furrowed briefly when confronted with news of pedophile priests, church cover-ups, condom use in Africa, unruly nuns, plummeting Sunday church attendance and a general lack of new and renewed subscription to a church that has kept its flock in line with the threat that disobedience to the infallible moral teaching of its pope would lead to eternal fire in hell.
Benedict once said that it would not bother him if the Catholic Church should become drastically smaller in size by the weeding out of dissenters. His “my way or the highway” approach to pastoral leadership resulted in the silent and almost unnoticed mass exodus of significant numbers of American Catholics who simply stopped getting married in church, stopped going to church on Sunday, stopped feeling guilty about gay sex, artificial birth control, condoms or vibrators, stopped entering the confessional on Saturday afternoon, stopped becoming nuns and priests, and, as was disclosed in startling recent surveys, stopped believing that gay people should not have equality and that other belief systems are not just as good as Catholicism.
What can we expect of the 117 voting-age cardinals who will lock themselves into the Sistine Chapel next month and smoke the place up with the burned ballots that will elect Benedict’s successor? Will they choose a man who will stop the anti-gay crusades of recent years? Will they elect a man who will hold women in such high regard that he will relinquish obsessive control over their lady parts and grant them access to that exclusively male club of the Catholic priesthood? Will they elevate a man who will understand how wallowing in ostentatious wealth irritates not only the poor but workers struggling to provide for the basic survival of their families?
Will they tap a man who loves children in an honorable way and will cherish their innocence by getting rid of abusive priests with speed and transparency? Will they select a man who is comfortable with a mysterious and personal god who has one truth but who speaks differently to each of us?
Will they break with recent tradition and avoid bowing to any cardinal who treats god like a sock puppet, putting words in his mouth like a blustering Wizard of Oz?
A cardinal of compassion and honesty would enjoy a large measure of instant popularity, but cardinals are creatures who care little for popularity until such time as unpopularity means loss of revenue, the closing down of churches and schools, and the payment of millions of dollars in settlements for the victims of priestly abuse.
As they enter the Sistine Chapel, those fiscal realities will be writ with red ink on the ballots they burn to produce white smoke.
Among the American cardinals who will take part in the conclave are men I knew in Rome in the ‘70s, including Tim Dolan, Don Wuerl, Ray Burke, Jim Harvey, Justin Rigali and Dan DiNardo.
Most of them are celibate gay men who will never admit to being gay because they have that uncanny ability to feel same-sex attraction while eschewing the gay nametag.
DiNardo and Harvey may have some skeletons in their closets. Burke is a good henchman but not a charismatic leader. Rigali is an elegant diplomat but is not considered an antidote to the priest abuse scandal.
Wuerl persecuted bad priests when other bishops were wringing their hands but he may be slightly too refined for his own good.
That leaves Dolan, a man of great popularity, huge appetites, big laughter, at ease with women and a gigantic heart for humanity. He is often listed as a front-running “papabile” (potential pope) and is someone I believe will surprise the world if elected pope. Cardinal Dolan has always been a rule-follower and one of his appetites is his desire to please his boss as perfectly as possible. If he finds himself answering to no higher earthly authority, we will finally see what is in his heart as he tries to discern what god really wants of him.
Although the LGBT community has decried his strenuous efforts to thwart marriage equality, I know him as someone who took the time to write me a “let’s do lunch” letter after I sent him an email welcoming him to New York. He did not have to do that. He knew my situation, and also, he counts many gay priests among his close friends. I do not know if Tim Dolan is gay or straight. He was never the kind of guy who talked sex. I do know that I would rather have a straight pope who was our ally than another closeted gay pope who is our foe.
The pageantry of the election aside, the sad fact is that most of the LGBT community has shed anti-gay Catholicism, and is critical of those of us who wish for its reform. “Why bother with it?” they ask me.
Maybe the five years I spent marrying people, baptizing their babies, holding their hands on their deathbeds and absolving their tearful guilt in the secrecy of the confessional made me a better person.
Maybe I just want to see those good Catholics get the good pope they deserve. Maybe I just want to tie up my own loose ends by seeing pink smoke from the chimney of the next conclave.
Tony Adams is a columnist, editor, playwright and ex-priest. He is Senior Features Correspondent with South Florida Gay News and a contributor at PRIDE magazine and The Mirror. His play A Letter From The Bishop had its first reading in New York City in 2012. In 2008, Tony married Christopher, his partner of 30 years. They live in Fort Lauderdale and Manhattan.