(Pope Benedict XVI at Catholic University on April 17, 2008 to speak with presidents of Catholic colleges. Photo by Pat McGuire)
With the torrent of commentaries surging across our screens and consciousness in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down at the end of this month, can there be even one single additional thought to ponder about the meaning of this moment? For the Church as an organization? For Catholics as a community of believers? For the disparate inhabitants of our global village?
Is the Pope still relevant?
Before the torrent of hate letters floods my inbox, dear readers, please know that my answer is a resounding, “Yes!” But as we contemplate Benedict’s bold action in resignation and the task now facing the cardinal electors, we surely have to confront the hard questions facing the Church, including the role of the Pope and papal authority in a world that, increasingly, challenges singular leaders.
Ironically, the very act of resignation has propelled Pope Benedict from being a somewhat remote, albeit important leader, to a figure of urgent relevance in this moment in Church and world history. The sheer volume of commentaries about the meaning of his action and its impact on the Church illuminates the broad understanding throughout the world of the papacy’s importance, and the Church’s impact on the world beyond the Catholic community.
One of the first notable signals that Benedict’s resignation sends is that the pope must be strong and vibrant, a leader with the intellectual, emotional and physical stamina necessary to be effective. The person is the papacy in so many ways, and a pope who cannot function effectively diminishes the power of the office. Benedict’s bold act is very modern. Few other organizations (Supreme Court, are you listening?) have leaders that are expected to die in office. Pope Benedict now says that’s quite absurd, the leader cannnot lead when debilitated.
Resignation in favor of a stronger, probably younger person immediately strengthens the papacy, itself, by insisting that the Church must operate with its leadership at full strength. Far from encouraging the spectre of a permanent “lame duck” papacy, which some may fear — the prospect of popes being forced out in the future by discontented curial cardinals is not far-fetched — the resignation opens the gate for speedier resolution of a leadership crisis without the long months of lingering ill health that have plagued prior papacies.
Consensus is quite clear among commentators of many different political and cultural viewpoints that the new pope must get his arms around the Church’s problems —- outmoded systems and hidebound management, ineffective public communications, financial scandals and declining workforce. Overriding all of these concerns is a widespread belief that the pope must exorcise the still-virulent effects of the child abuse scandal. Pope Benedict made a good start on this latter effort, but appears to have run into many roadblocks among interested parties inside the Vatican walls.
Will a new pope try to make the Church more relevant to the modern world? That answer depends on what people think is relevant, of course. A strong papal voice for addressing the global injustices of poverty, human trafficking, terrorism, tyranny, environmental stewardship, violence and the wanton destruction of human life is something we expect and hope will be even bolder in the new pope.
Those who expect “relevance” to mean significant modernization of the Church’s policies and views on the role of women, marriage, birth control and abortion will not be satisfied. I think it’s highly unlikely that a new pope will liberalize the Church’s stance on any of these issues.
We can hope, however, that the new pope might send more progressive signals on such topics as respect for religious women, welcoming women into more Church roles, allowing the expression of differences of opinion without fear, and the future shape of ministries, including parishes, as ordained priests continue to decline in number.
On Catholic higher education, those of us who attended Pope Benedict’s meeting with U.S. presidents of Catholic colleges in 2008 remember his warmth and wisdom on that occasion, and we can hope that a new pope will take a similarly proud, intense and supportive view of this part of the Church’s ministry in the world.
The cardinal electors gathering in Rome after March 1 will meet at a truly historic moment. They know that the Church, with more than one billion members, is quite possibly the most important institution in the global village. The new pope will not be able to walk on water, but he will be the vicar on earth of the One who did. He needs to use that power with wisdom and grace, and also with boldness, even audacity.
This is the moment for a new pope to move the Church forward in a confident embrace of the future, and to rebuild the organization so that it will be capable of providing true leadership and moral influence in that future, not only for Catholics but for human society broadly. That task certainly requires more than one man chosen by a small group of other men, but in that one man resides the Church’s hope for the future. May the cardinals have the wisdom to choose well!
Filling these shoes well will not be an easy job!