The Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

March 6th, 2013

A Surprise Announcement

On Monday, February 11, as the Christian church prepared to enter the holy season of Lent, Pope Benedict XVI surprised his followers within the Roman Catholic community by announcing that he would resign, which makes him the first pope to resign from the position since 1415. Benedict cited health concerns for his decision, telling an assemblage of cardinals that “in order to govern the ship of Saint Peter and announce the Gospel, it is necessary to have a certain vigor of body and soul, vigor, which in recent months, has diminished, forcing me to recognize my incapacity to administer well the ministry that has been entrusted to me.” His resignation took effect on February 28. A papal conclave will meet to elect his successor, perhaps before Easter.

Changes in papal leadership often mark significant moments in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. They also offer the opportunity for all Christians to consider what sort of leadership we desire for this particular age. What are the implications for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue? What are the challenges that the next pope will face, and who is that pope likely to be?

Benedict’s Legacy

When the then-78-year-old cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, many observers expected that he would be a conservative influence, maintaining order within the church. A Spiegel magazine article, published one year after his ascendency to the papal throne, said, “Ratzinger was elected for [his] ability to set things straight.” Following the long-serving and charismatic John Paul II, Ratzinger presented a sober contrast. Having served as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office originally known as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition, Ratzinger had a reputation as an enforcer of orthodoxy––the Panzerkardinal, or “battle tank cardinal.”

In practice, however, Pope Benedict XVI has been known more for his sartorial choices than for crackdowns on questionable church movements. In an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Allen, herself a Catholic, confessed that “when Pope Benedict XVI announced his pending resignation, my first thought wasn’t religious. It was in fact downright superficial. ‘There goes the best-dressed pontiff ever!’ ” With his red shoes and fur-lined velvet caps, Benedict has revived some of the opulence of papal dress.

This is not to suggest that Benedict’s tenure was a victory of style over substance. Benedict’s concern for fashion reflected a greater concern for beauty as a theological virtue. The attention he gave to dress was matched by a concern for fine music (he plays Mozart on the piano) and for well-written theology (he is a prolific writer whom Spiegel calls “the mostpublished pope in church history”). Benedict expressed a concern for non-believers, particularly in the Western world, and reached out to them, believing, as the Spiegel profile suggests, that “instead of replacing the rational with the mystic,” a Christian intellectual “uses it in the service of faith.”

However, Benedict sometimes ran into controversy with his decisions. Early in his tenure, as he delivered a theological lecture in Germany, he quoted a Byzantine emperor speaking disparagingly of Islam. This led to tensions in Christian-Muslim relations. In 2009, as a recent New Yorker piece reports, he “lifted the excommunication of the right-wing Catholic followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, only to see one of the bishops being brought back into the fold, Richard Williamson, give a television interview in which he denied the reality of the Holocaust.” Benedict has also presided during a period in which high-profile reports of clergy sexual abuse have damaged the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world.

Challenges for a Global Church

The election of a new pope comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is undergoing a historic demographic shift from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern. The Pew Research Center conducted a study that revealed a century-long migration in the Catholic populace. In 1910, the majority of Catholics lived either in Europe (65 percent) or Latin America (24 percent). By 2010, Europe was home to just 25 percent of the global Catholic Church. The countries with the largest number of Catholics today are Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines. The rise of the church outside of Europe has led to speculation that the next pope may be from Latin America, Africa, or Asia, which would be a first for the 2,000- year-old institution.

Whoever the new pope is, he will also face tensions within the church over how to respond to an environment that seems indifferent to the church’s traditional message. Conservatives within the church stress the necessity of maintaining practices like the celibacy of priests. Other voices within the church have advocated for liberalizing Catholic teachings on divorce and contraception. And underneath it all is a concern for evangelization, especially to young people. Quoted in The New York Times, John L. Allen, a Vatican expert at the National Catholic Reporter, says the church wants a pope who can be “the church’s missionary in chief, a showman and salesman for the Catholic faith, who can take the reins of government more personally into his own hands.”

A Medieval Institution in the 21st Century

One major challenge for the Roman Catholic Church, regardless of who the new pope is, is its image as a relic from an earlier era in which authority was expressed more hierarchically. In an age when democratic values have pervaded so many institutions, the idea of having one figure at the top of a billion-member organization seems anachronistic. Kathleen Delpha, a lapsed Catholic writing to Salon magazine, said, “The church is going to have to lose the hierarchy in order for me to fully come back. I cannot reconcile my life as an educated, conscientious person with the medieval style of decision making and loyalty demands.”

Retired United Methodist bishop Tim Whitaker feels that Pope Benedict may have contributed toward a more helpful view of papal authority even in his resignation. A veteran of ecumenical dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, Whitaker says that within those dialogues, “the conversation is about how the papal office can be reformed to be more of a servant leadership role than a juridical or authoritarian office. Certainly, Benedict’s resignation is a powerful act of emphasizing how the papal office is a place to serve the church rather than a kind of incarnation of St. Peter.” By recognizing that his physical limitations impact how he is able to serve, Benedict makes the office more about service than about his person.

Ecumenical and Interfaith Dialogue

The reforming Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s opened new possibilities for dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths and denominations aimed at greater understanding and unity. Pope Benedict was a participant in that council and has been a critic of it in years since, though he has expressed that his concerns were more about the interpretation of the council’s work. Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, expressed appreciation for Benedict’s “commitment to bringing the invitation of the Christian faith to a largely secular society” and noted that “his profoundly theological teaching on Christ’s nature and works deserves deep respect and acknowledgement.”

Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation expressed hopes that a new pope would change the atmosphere in Catholic-Muslim relations, which he felt were harmed by Pope Benedict’s approach. Shafiq told The Guardian newspaper, “The Catholic Church now has a chance to return back to the teachings and practices of Pope John Paul II which were of inter-faith work and respect for our respective positions and I hope that once a new pope is elected we actually see our faiths come together.” Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, was much more affirming of the current state of Catholic-Jewish relations. Lauder praised Pope Benedict’s “skillful leadership” in elevating relations to “an unprecedented level.” Lauder stated, “We hope that his successor will continue from where he leaves off.”

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