As I write this a group of elderly single men are in the process of deciding who will be their next boss. They are also deciding who will be the leader of the worlds 1.5 million Roman Catholics. The Papacy may be the oldest job on the planet. It has its advantages - travel, a nice flat, your very own special car. It has its disadvantages - no sex, no wife, you can't invite your mates around to watch smutty movies and there are a whole bunch of nutcases who yesterday had never heard of you and tomorrow will want to murder you. Despite the huge size and wealth of the organisation, there is not a big salary, there is no pension scheme and you don't get to buy your own Premiership Football club, no matter how much you like football. You never get a Sunday off and you also have to work at Christmas and Easter.
Given the extraordinary lineage of the job of Pope, a question that many non Catholic people ask is "what useful things have Popes ever done" (assuming you consider leading 1.5 billion people not very important).
Well there are a few things they've given us, that I'd guess even the most grudging of athiest may give a nod to. Perhaps the most widely known of these is the Gregorian Calendar, which is the calendar used by the vast majority of the Western world. if it wasn't for Pope Gregory, we'd not be living in the year 2013 in the UK. Whilst this is just a number, it gives us a certain order in our lives. I for one quite enjoyed living through the millenuium. Now I know that many other traditions and cultures have their own calendars, but as the Gregorian one meant I got to see a millenium, I rather like it.
Another great invention we can thank Popes for is the foundation of modern medical practice. Now whilst there was a little bit of enlightened self interest in this (Pope Clement VI didn't want to die of the plague), his doctor (Guy Du Chaliac) approach to the medical issues raised by the plague in a scientific manner cannot be underestimated. Du Chaliac realised that doctors had to approach treatment of illness in a scientific manner and record symptoms and results of treatments. Being the Popes doctor, his methodology had to be taken seriously. Whilst there are many who can claim to have influenced the development of modern medicine, being the Popes physician during the bubonic plague helped cement study and scientific methodology as the way to practice medicine. Perhaps one of the better things Pope Clement did was instruct his clergy to stop blaming Jewish people for spreading the plague. Whilst to us this should seem a fairly obvious thing for a Pope to do, it reversed many centuries of blatant anti semitism.
And what of more modern Popes? Pope John XXIV is perhaps the most significant, for introducing the Vatican II changes. This brought about a seismic shift in Catholic teaching. It declared that you don't have to be a Roman Catholic to go to heaven. Up until Vatican II priests would declare that anyone who wasn't Catholic was doomed to go to hell. Even babies who were born to Catholic parents and died before baptism were doomed. This brought Catholic Theology into the 20th century and ended the unneccesary pain and suffering of many devout parents of dead children.
The significance of Pope John Paul II also cannot be underplayed. His role in the demise of communism is also highly significant. Like many Popes he became to ill and infirm to effectively manage the church towards the end of his life. If he'd resigned like his successor before his powers completely faded, I suspect history would have judged him in a far better light.
His successor Benedict has made one important new precedent. He has resigned. This may be one of the biggest changes, if the idea is adopted.
So the question has to be, what do I, as a Roman Catholic want from a new Pope. Well lets say I'm on the very liberal wing of the church. I want to see the organisation put all of its energy into social justice. I want to see the church move away from all its hangups with sexual conduct. I would like to see priests be able to marry and married people be able to be priests. I would like to see the church accept that peoples sexual conduct is a matter for their conscience and not as a rod to beat people with. I would like to see the church take responsibility for the past behaviour of the small number of its members of the clergy towards young people. I would like to see it redefine its pro life policies, so the phrase meant exactly what it says. I cannot see how a Christian can claim to be pro life, yet support capital punishment, summary state execution or economic polices which consign whole sections of the planet to starvation and death. As far as I'm concerned these are the real issues which threaten lives and all are avoidable and the morality is copmpletely clear cut.
We are all in this together. The Pope is a spiritual leader and it is important for everyone on the planet who cares about the wellbeing of his fellow citizens that the Cardinals choose the right man for the job. There are many people who see the Roman Catholic Church as a historic relic or irrelevant. There are many who do not see it as a force for good or something which should even exist in the 21st Century. If the Cardinals pick the right man for the job, I don't expect the likes of Richard Dawkins to be sitting in the pews next to me reciting the Lords Prayer. I do however think that if they pick the right person, even the likes of Richard Dawkins may grudgingly accept that they have done a good job and made the world a bit of a better place for everyone. There are not many jobs where 1.5 billion people take some account of your views. That is why I hope they pick sombody wise, humble, honest and decent, with the wisdom of Soloman but with compassion and a good understanding of the society we live in.