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Benedict XVI resigns the papacy

The leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Bene­dict XVI, shocked the globe on Monday when he announced he would be step­ping down as pontiff—the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years. We asked Eliz­a­beth Bucar, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of reli­gious studies in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­ophy and Reli­gion, to weigh in on the con­se­quences of this his­toric move.

Pope Benedict XVI is the first head of the Catholic Church to resign in nearly 600 years. How do you expect the transition of power to differ this time around given the outgoing pope is still alive? Is there any precedent for the kind of role the pontiff might play in his retirement?

The last case of papal res­ig­na­tion is that of Gre­gory XII, who renounced his claim on the papacy to end what is known as the Western or Papal Schism (1378–1417), when two men simul­ta­ne­ously claimed to be pope. That is hardly a prece­dent for Monday’s extra­or­di­nary announce­ment that Bene­dict, because of failing strength of “body and mind,” believed he had become inca­pable “to ade­quately ful­fill the min­istry.” So while we can find in his­tory a handful of other popes who gave up the papacy, only time will tell what role this pon­tiff might play in the Church going forward.

We are being told that Bene­dict plans to go into iso­la­tion after he steps down and reded­i­cate him­self to his the­o­log­ical study and writing. Do not assume this is a sign that he will be less influ­en­tial in the Church. A serious intel­lec­tual, Bene­dict was the archi­tect of much of the doc­trinal and eth­ical teaching of his predecessor’s papacy and is likely to con­tinue to influ­ence the Catholic Church from behind the scenes if he remains intel­lec­tu­ally productive.

We are also being told he will not par­tic­i­pate in the Car­dinal con­clave that will elect his pre­de­cessor. But he does not have to be clois­tered with the Car­di­nals to wield influ­ence over that selec­tion. Bene­dict appointed 67 of the 118 Car­di­nals who will make the deci­sion of who suc­ceeds him. It takes two-​​thirds plus one of the 118 voting car­di­nals to elect a new leader. Do the math and you will see how much influ­ence he already has had over this decision.

Benedict replaced Pope John Paul II, who has been regarded as one of the Catholic Church’s most influential leaders. What kind of legacy does Benedict leave, and what role do you think his resignation will play in shaping that?

Pope John Paul II was a tough act to follow. He was so charis­matic, so ener­getic, so the­atri­cally savvy—a Catholic Ronald Reagan of the 20th cen­tury. Many years into Benedict’s papacy my grand­mother still referred to John Paul II as “the good pope.” Com­pare this to Benedict’s most often-​​used nick­name: “God’s Rottweiler.”

To his credit, Bene­dict never tried to emu­late John Paul II’s style of lead­er­ship. He never expected someone like my grand­mother would warm up to him. And she never did. Nei­ther did lib­erals or fem­i­nists. But con­ser­v­a­tives loved him for his unwa­vering tra­di­tional the­ology. He stood firmly against same-​​sex mar­riage, women’s ordi­na­tion, and arti­fi­cial con­tra­cep­tion. This the­o­log­ical con­ser­vatism is cer­tainly one of his legacies.

But I also think he will be most remem­bered for the extra­or­di­nary details of his res­ig­na­tion. To give up such a posi­tion of power demon­strates Benedict’s humility, gen­erosity, good­will, and even his fragility—all of which makes him a moral exem­plar for Catholics. Acknowl­edging his own lim­i­ta­tion was also an indi­rect cri­tique of the insti­tu­tion of the papal office, which assumes once elected a pope will rule for life. In a 2010 inter­view Bene­dict went so far as to say that if a pope real­izes he is no longer capable of han­dling the duties of his office he has an oblig­a­tion to resign. How does this com­pli­cate the idea of papal infallibility?

There are sure to be rumors in the coming weeks of why Bene­dict “really” resigned, rumors of some scandal of which the public is unaware. But I do not buy it. Not this pope. Not the pope who implied Islam is fun­da­men­tally vio­lent, who warned of a “dic­ta­tor­ship of rel­a­tivism,” who remained against women priests, who admitted in his memoir that he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth move­ment. This Pope is not afraid of con­tro­versy. Not God’s Rot­tweiler. The real reason for his retire­ment is more human, and that should be part of his legacy as well.

How much does papal transition affect the Catholic Church, its doctrine, and its role in the world? What challenges and issues might we expect the next pope—who is expected to be selected by the College of Cardinals sometime next month—to address?

Papal tran­si­tion can have an enor­mous affect on the Catholic Church, both its doc­trine and its role in the world. It might be easy to forget this given recent Church his­tory. In terms of doc­trine, Benedict’s reign was to a great extent a con­tin­u­a­tion of John Paul II’s. He is widely seen as a “care­taker pope,” elected to act as a bridge until the next gen­er­a­tion of church leadership.

But Bene­dict was a care­taker because he was elected when he was 78. His res­ig­na­tion is likely to encourage the Car­di­nals to select a much younger man who could poten­tially hold the office for decades longer. This new pope will con­tinue to deal with the sex-​​abuse scandal, priest short­ages, dimin­ishing mem­bers in the devel­oped world, and tremen­dous growth in the devel­oping world. The next pope will have to build bridges to other reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties given the recep­tion of some of Benedict’s com­ments as attacks on non-​​Christian reli­gions, espe­cially Islam. The Church might take up more earnestly the eco­log­ical and envi­ron­mental issues facing our planet.

Given the makeup of the Car­di­nals, the new pope will likely con­tinue Benedict’s con­ser­v­a­tive the­o­log­ical doc­trine. But he will be a much younger man than Bene­dict and will likely come from out­side of Europe. Bene­dict preached against the African­iza­tion of the faith. What sort of changes would an African pope bring to the Church’s approach to reli­gious glob­al­iza­tion and syncretization?

– by Matt Collette

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