by Monte Sahlin
Should Adventists care who is selected as the next head of the Roman Catholic Church? Is anyone among the speculated possibilities more or less favorable to anything we care about?
The answers to both those questions may be an immediate “no,” but there are larger issues here that inevitably connect with the Seventh-day Adventist Church whether we like it or not. One of the major factors in the discussions and balloting in the Sistine Chapel is whether or not the new pope should be from a developing country in Africa, Asia or Latin America. For more than a thousand years the popes have always been European, but the center of gravity for the Christian faith has shifted away from Europe to the southern hemisphere.
This shift has actually impacted the Adventist Church to greater degree than the Catholic Church. About 90 percent of Adventists live in developing countries. The next General Conference Session may well elect a president from the southern hemisphere. Some see Elder Ted Wilson, the current president, as a transitional figure because of his years of overseas mission service and the family history that he comes from.
One of the biggest issues in the Adventist Church right now—ordination and the role of women—splits along the lines of developed countries vs. developing countries. Adventist institutions function differently in developing countries than they do in developed countries, sometimes to the consternation of members who discover these differences. A growing share of the membership in Europe, North America and Australia is made up of immigrants from developing nations, and in many places the immigrants have become a majority leaving a widespread impression that this creates barriers to church growth among indigenous people.
As the native-born North American, European and Australian membership ages and declines, there is growing concern in their ranks that tends to split into two polarized viewpoints. On the one hand are those who see most young adults raised in Adventist families leave the church and express the fear that change will not come fast enough to keep the faith from dying out in their tribe. On the other hand are those who are afraid that change will go too far and give away essentials of Adventist identity.
This same three-legged dynamic is present in both the Catholic Church and the Adventist Church, as well as parallel patterns of wholistic ministry through institutions, parochial education and strong, centralized governance processes. There are deep doctrinal differences between the two religions, yet ironically they find themselves dealing with the same demographic and cultural realities these days. How the papal conclave relates to these issues and, more importantly, how they play out in the years ahead for the new pope, will provide some insights that could be valuable to Adventists if they have the spiritual maturity and skills to observe it carefully.
The new pope will not hold a press conference and admit that his predecessors changed the Bible Sabbath without divine authorization. In fact, he is not likely to even admit that some of the cardinals are legally culpable in cover up child abuse, as has already been admitted in multiple court cases. Leaders of worldwide religions rarely make such dramatic gestures, even if they feel in their hearts that they should. The internal politics of the massive organization tend to dictate what the person in charge can do and say, to a much greater degree than they are willing to admit to themselves.
Yet there will be subtle signs about the future relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, sooner or later and probably later. There will also be straws in the wind that point toward how some of the parallel issues may work themselves out in both religions. Stay tuned!