I awoke this morning to discover that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his intention to resign, effective February 28. As a United Methodist and non-Roman Catholic, I don’t have a dog in this hunt and as such probably have little authority for commenting on the resignation of a pope, but as I was reading the news several questions came to mind that are worthy of consideration.
- How does a pope “retire” in the modern age?
The last pope to abdicate the throne of Peter was Pope Gregory XII in 1415, who did so to end a civil war between competing factions of the church regarding the selection of the pope. At no time has a pope voluntarily retired, moving to the south of France to sit on a beach and drink chablis. Morris West in his book “The Clowns of God” suggests that a dethroned pope would likely lock himself in a monastery to live in relative seclusion out of sight and out of mind for the rest of his days, but there are no precedents and no regulations on where a former pope can live or what a former pope can do to my knowledge.The more difficult issue is the one of authority. While it’s true that Benedict will have voluntarily given up his office, any church who has experienced the resignation of a long lived and loved senior pastor and the hiring of new leadership will tell you that these transitions are rarely easy, for people continue to reach out to the old guard and if the old guard isn’t careful, they can easily find themselves offering commentary ans suggestions which undermine the new leadership. This will be the first time ever where a sitting pope will have a living dethroned pope in the wings — one who is a long time product of the Vatican and has many, many relationships with leaders in that institution over many years. This may be a good argument for the selection of a new pope likewise rooted in the bureaucracy of the church rather than the selection of an outsider to bring a new vision and outlook, something that would likely be harmful for the church in the long term.
It’s easy to think that Benedict’s retirement will be easy, but the lack of precedents and rules governing abdication will make this an interesting time.
- Will the Roman Catholic Church see this as an opportunity for change or remain entrenched in the same old, same old?
Benedict’s reign has been both predictable and rocky. The College of Cardinals selected a pope they new was relatively old and would likely have a shorter reign than his predecessor John Paul II in the desire to maintain the status quo (if not undo some of the influence of Vatican II) but also in the recognition of the need for a “sacrificial pope,” that is, a pope who could deal with the fallout of falling a very popular predecessor. Benedict didn’t surprise anyone in his theological pronouncements (both Cardinals and the Vatican curia don’t deal well with surprises) but his demeanor and approach to faith meant that he likewise didn’t handle the repeated child sexual abuse scandals very effectively. Certainly there are some who believe that the need for a conservative approach to faith was needed in a postmodern world, and Benedict was the keeper of the faith, but there are likely as many Roman Catholics for whom Benedict had little influence and minimal authority over their lives.This resignation offers the conclave (the gathering of cardinals who will select the new pope) an opportunity to reset and look for someone who is a symbol of what Roman Catholicism may need to be in our postmodern age. Certainly the church could benefit from a charismatic, young leader who has some semblance of understanding about the nature of religious pluralism in the world today, and an understanding that the old dogmas that governed religious thought and practice in the world during the modern era are increasingly becoming irrelevant today. More importantly this leader could understand that youngerish postmodern, post colonial folks are okay with the mystery of God and the church, resonate with the beauty of the liturgy, and are ripe for entering into a relationship with the divine in a community that is generous in its orthodoxy.This is a chance for a new start, but I am skeptical that the conclave will take it for I think part of Benedict’s strategy of consolidation of his theological and political power pretty much ensures a leadership that is invested in maintaining that expression of theological and political thought. Benedict shrewdly understood that his legacy would be found in creating a leadership team in the church that reflected his approach to theology and practice that would last beyond his tenure. From what I’ve seen, he’s carried out this task effectively, so I’m inclined to think that we’ll be seeing a new pope more in his mold than any reformer.
- Is this the time for a Pope of the Americas?
The power of the church in terms of active participation shifted several years ago from Europe to the Americas, specifically Latin America, which has not been reflected in the selection of the office. There will always be factions in the Vatican who believe that the “Bishop of Rome” is best served by an Italian rooted in the system. However, given the global nature of the office it is time to think that a pope who represents the largest group of Roman Catholics in the world might be in order. This will certainly not be a candidate from North America, for I think there is a recognition that the problems and struggles of the church in the states would likely be a hindrance to carrying out the office world wide, but I would not be surprised to see a candidate from one of the Latin American countries rise to prominence and even obtain election.
The conclave will select a new pope in March. I have no doubt there there will be many words written and much conversation between now and then.