WASHINGTON (CNS) — Laypeople have a right and duty to offer their ideas to the cardinals who will elect the next pope, one theologian observed as part of a panel of lay Catholics who proposed that characteristics such as joy and diplomacy were important to the selection.

The pope matters even beyond the Catholic Church because it’s important “to have a world leader at a time when the human family so divided, and often polarized to have the kind of charismatic, holy, compassionate person calling forth the best in all of us,” said Miguel Diaz, professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and the most recent U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.


Diaz was part of a round-table discussion at The Catholic University of America March 1, the day after Pope Benedict XVI resigned and as cardinals gathered in Rome to consider who they should choose to replace him.

The program, co-sponsored by Catholic News Service, the show “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” and the two Catholic universities, was filmed for broadcast by the PBS TV show.

Another panelist, Kim Daniels, director of Catholic Voices USA, said the pope is essential because there’s a need for “a leader on the world stage who is a voice for the voiceless.”

The discussion touched on what the participants think are important considerations for the cardinal electors, whether the world is ready for a pope who comes from the United States and what directions a new pope might — or should — take the church.

Margaret Melady, vice chair of the board of trustees of the Catholic Distance University, said she’d like to see a new pope who brings joy and energy to the job, as well as willingness to take risks.

“There’s no question you have to have some administrative skills, but you have to be really sure about the people who are going to be around you,” said Melady, whose husband, Tom, was ambassador to the Holy See from 1989 to 1993. “And you have to be willing to take some risks sometime. Look at (Blessed) John Paul II, he chose a layperson to be in charge of his media relations. That was really going out on a limb at that time. No one else had done that.

“You have to choose the very best people to surround you, to help you. Not only in policy and to advise you but to actually take control. In some cases, you have to look to some people who are going to be tough.”

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University, said in addition to those characteristics, he’d like to see the cardinals choose a pope who is a skillful mediator.

“Right now, the church in the world, and in the United States, is a complex church,” he said. “It’s divided north and south, it’s divided east and west, it’s divided in its political wings.”

Given that, Schneck said, “we need a pope to bridge all that, to speak to all those different audiences.”

All of the panelists agreed that whether or not the new pope has direct experience in handling the crisis of clergy sexual abuse, it will be important that he “does justice to the issue,” as Daniels put it.

Melady observed that problems related to the abuse crisis are among those that require “real clear setting of priorities and making sure we assess those weaknesses.”

Diaz noted that the Second Vatican Council “Gaudium et Spes” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) says laypeople are not only entitled to offer their guidance to the church’s leaders, “indeed sometimes we are obliged to do so.”

Given that, Diaz invited people to weigh in with their brief bits of advice to the cardinals via Twitter, by sending tweets to @profmigueldiaz. To see what others are saying via Twitter go to: #Hopes4aNewPope.

Daniels observed that “what people are looking for, of course, is reform and renewal and you need to be able to execute that.”

But, she added, “as Benedict just recently said in the past few days, the church isn’t an organization. We’re a faith. It’s a community of believers, a community of brothers and sisters. What we need is witness, a personal example of friendship and a relationship with Christ.”

The panel debated the virtues of a younger pope with energy and the possibility of a lengthy term as leader of the Catholic Church over the experience that might come in an older man who presumably would hold the seat for less time.

Either way, Diaz said, “I think Pope Benedict has provided a wonderful, a very human example by stepping down.”

As to whether it’s realistic to think someone from the United States, Africa or Latin America might be elected, Daniels said it would be a boon to the new evangelization emphasized by Benedict and his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, if the new pope was from the “global south,” rather than one of the highly secular cultures of Europe or the United States.

Diaz said that being from the U.S. presents an obstacle because of the way the country is perceived, as a superpower.

“Let’s face it,” said Melady. “We are the superpower … at the moment” and it’s historically been difficult to have a pope who represents whatever the superpower of the time has been.

But, Schneck said, “I think there is a chance. Things have changed. We’re no longer the superpower in the way we were in 1995. There’s leadership in the church being provided by the American cardinals. If things get deadlocked at the top (in voting) I could see the possibility — slim — but I could see the possibility of someone like Cardinal (Sean P.) O’Malley (of Boston) or Cardinal (Timothy M.) Dolan (of New York) rising to the top.”