Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as Pope - to be known as Benedict XVI - must surely be the least surprising election result in history. Pope John Paul II stacked an overwhelmingly conservative College of Cardinals in order to secure Ratzinger as his successor, and guarantee that the Roman Catholic church continued in the conservative direction of the past quarter-century.
Ironically, if Ratzinger remains Pope for any length of time (he is the oldest Pope to be chosen in over 100 years, and the last-but-one Pope only lasted 33 days...) it is highly likely that the exact opposite will occur: during the last papacy the Catholic church grew not only numerically but also demographically younger, and John Paul II was held in great personal affection by millions of Catholics who strongly disagreed with many of his strongly-held views; Ratzinger will not hold their affection in anything like the same way, and, with the possibility of reform of the church from the top down apparently firmly closed, reform of the church from the bottom up might just become unstoppable...
Earlier on today I was reflecting on the forthcoming General Election here in the UK, in the light of the paradigm-shift in British politics. Back when I was a student, in the early Nineties, it was all so simple: the Conservatives were on the right-wing of the political spectrum; Labour was on the left-wing; and the Liberal Democrats occupied the middle-ground. And, as one of my Christian friends said, "I can't see how you can be a Christian if you don't vote Tory." [that is, Conservative] And, as another of my Christian friends said in reply, "I can't see how you can be a Christian if you don't vote Labour." And me? I voted Lib Dem.
Since then, Labour has moved to the right, first in order to secure election (at heart, the British are historically more right-wing than left) and then consolidating their ground in order to ensure that the Conservatives could not easily return to power. This left an open space to the left of British politics (not really a problem, given a right-wing population); forced the Conservatives further to the right; and, as a result of this general shift, opened the door to a number of even more right-wing parties which have emerged into the open. Ironically for a Labour Prime Minister, responsibility for the rise of right-wing nationalist parties may go down - along with the extremely controversial and unpopular decision to go to war in Iraq - as Tony Blair's lasting legacy.
I feel uneasy about the (likely) prospect of a third term of Labour government. Fundamentally, I think that any one party being in power for such a long time - regardless of their ideology - is not good for the country: they tend to stop listening to, and representing, the people. In my opinion, what was so bad about so many years of Tory rule was not so much their policies - inevitably a mix of 'good', 'bad' and maybe even 'indifferent' - but simply the fact that they remained in power so long. Three terms of Labour will not be any better - their policies, too, are mixed. Personally, I'm not particularily convinced by Democracy anyway (I've yet to see this ancient Greek idea work well in practice anywhere); I'm dismayed that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have moved much further away from appealing to people's hopes and instead prey on their fears; and I'd quite like to see a system where our three main parties rotate government for two terms at a time and Members of Parliament have to work together across party lines much more openly than they currently do. Of course, it will never happen...but regardless of that, I think that the church is called to offer constructive criticism - and where necessary, opposition - to whoever is in political power; and to inform both Government- and Oppostion-party policies. In that sense, we are called to be a voice calling "Prepare the way for the Lord" in the wilderness, to speak from the margins of society.
I believe that we (whether Cardinal Princes of the Catholic Church or General Electorate of the United Kingdom) need to listen to God and take our part in seeking His will be done in those elections where we are called upon to vote. But we don't have God's perspective on the impact of those decisions, even if we believe we understand His will; and I, for one, am glad that Eternity puts a different perspective on whatever comes to pass in Time.
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