MOUNT LOFTY, South Australia – I could be the next pope. The college of cardinals has the power to elect any baptized man when they gather in their scarlet robes under Michelangelo’s noble ceiling in the Sistine Chapel next month.

Though I shall not be sitting by my telephone to wait in trembling anticipation for the Cardinal Camerlengo to call, in one vital respect I am an eminently suitable candidate. Notwithstanding the usual mindless chatter of the news media about the supposed need to appoint a “progressive” to head the world’s most ancient and enduring institution, the next pope – like very nearly all of his predecessors – must be and will be a conservative.

Like it or not, conservatism is an essential characteristic of the man who will fill the shoes of the Fisherman. The reason is that the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church makes the startling and, at first blush, arrogant claim that it is no less than the guardian of the eternal message given to mankind by the Son of God.

An eternal message is just that – eternal. It does not – cannot – change from age to age. Though the language in which it is expressed may be Aramaic at one moment, Greek or Latin the next, then English or Spanish, the essence of the message is by definition unalterable. For this reason, not even the pope himself is free to tamper with what is called “the deposit of faith.”

St. Vincent of Lerins, writing his trenchant commonitorium or “memo to self” among the scented pines of the tiny Ile Saint Honorat in the bay of Cannes a millennium and a half ago, said that it was not for us to add anything to the faith that we had received, nor to alter anything, nor to take anything away.

Our duty, he said in his thunderously elegant Ciceronian Latin, was not to tamper with the faith that had been transmitted to us, but to conserve it, to meditate upon it and to hand it on untainted by any novelty.

He also reminded himself – and us – of how one could recognize the true faith from the numerous imitations that had arisen even in the early Church. The true faith, he said, was that which was cheerfully held and carefully taught by all the saints and fathers and doctors of the Church; or, as he meticulously put it, fere omnibus (“by very nearly all”).

For there are those, he said, who could not resist the temptation to pick and choose among doctrines, to make up the faith as they went along, to impose their own wishes upon it, and thereby to corrupt it.

St. Vincent’s notebook provides us with an objective test to enable us to answer the question which (if any) of the multitudinous presentations of Christianity is the true faith. For once it is accepted, at least for the sake of argument, that the message of the eternal God is itself eternal and accordingly as changeless as He, it follows – startlingly – that the question which is the true faith is a matter of straightforward historical enquiry.

We do not even need faith itself to help us to answer the question. All we need is access to the numerous writings of the saints and fathers and doctors of the Church from the authors of the New Testament to the preachers and teachers of our own time.

No faith that in any material respect denies, repudiates or contradicts that which was always held and taught has any claim to be the true faith preached and exemplified by Christ, however superficially attractive or popular it may appear to be.

The starting point for any such enquiry is two handbooks diligently compiled by the thorough biblical scholars of the German school. The first is the “Enchiridion Symbolorum” of Denzinger and Schönmetzer, the comprehensive index to the documents that formally express the teachings of Christ and His Church. The second is the “Enchiridion Patristicum,” the index to the less formal and more inspirational meditations of the early fathers.

Armed with these indexes, any scholar able to read Greek and Latin can travel with ease through 2,000 years of Christian thought. The present pope is one such scholar. He knows, as every pope knows, that to fulfill his office he must forever forswear any temptation to introduce any novelty into the longest continuous train of thought in human affairs.

Every pope must accept this limitation upon his freedom. Pope Honorius was tempted to break free. He signed the Second Declaration of Sirmium, which had been craftily drafted so as to be open to the Arian interpretation that Christ was not of the same nature (in Greek homoousios) with God but merely of a similar nature (homoiousios).

Though Honorius was the pope, he found that he had no power to tamper with the faith even by a single, crucial iota. Athanasius, one of his bishops, stood up to him and, in the creed that bears his name, reasserted that Christ is not merely a Godlike man but, as the Council of Chalcedon beautifully put it, “perfectly God and perfectly Man.”

There will be much chatter about who the new pope will be. Perhaps he will be African, to reflect the galloping growth of the faith in the Dark Continent. Perhaps he will be English-speaking – the razor-minded Cardinal Pell of Sydney, perhaps, or the working-class and forthrightly authoritative Cardinal O’Brien of Edinburgh. Lists of Papabili will be pored over and discussed worldwide.

Whoever is chosen, whatever his character, he will know that his first duty is to answer the plea of Christ Himself “that they may be one.” For the Communion of Saints exists not merely in space but also across time itself. The voices of all who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith will whisper to the new pope, whoever he may be, reminding him that if he is to walk with them and with us he must be the humble servant, not the proud master, of the eternal Truth.

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