By Bob Gaydos
Kings and popes don’t resign.
Except when they do.
In the case of popes, that’s every 600 years or so, it turns out. Pope Benedict XVI proved to be the exception to the socially accepted truism about kings and popes when he announced his retirement Monday, stunning a billion-plus Catholics worldwide.
Benedict, who is 85, is one of but a handful of the 265 recognized popes to resign and the first pope since Gregory XII in 1615 to do so.
Gregory faced a serious challenge to his power, since three other popes had also been elected by different factions of the church. Benedict faces no such challenge. Indeed, if anything, in his eight years in the papal chair he has created a collegiality of doctrinaire conservatism among the cardinals he has appointed and who will select a successor from their midst.
The point being, if the accepted wisdom proves to be correct and a conservative European cardinal is elected pope, nothing will change in the Roman Catholic Church. That could be a serious problem for an institution that has adamantly resisted adapting to the modern world and which is losing parishioners and financial support at a troublesome rate and is seeing ever-declining numbers of men entering the priesthood.
Benedict cited his declining health as the reason for his resignation, saying he felt he could no longer properly handle the demands of the position. He wasn’t talking about saying Mass or issuing decrees. The Church has been rocked by a series of scandals and challenges from within and Benedict himself has been central in some of them. That might lead a skeptic to wonder if his leaving for health reasons is the equivalent of an American politician stepping down to “spend more time with my family.”
Pass the grain of salt, please.
Next month, all cardinals under the age of 80 will meet to select their new leader. Whoever it turns out to be will have to deal with these major issues Benedict leaves behind:
- The sex scandal. Most of the sexual abuse of young boys by priests apparently happened on his predecessor’s watch, but Benedict has been implicitly connected with the church-wide coverup of the abuses. To this day, revelations and lawsuits plague the Church and some leaders still try to avoid taking responsibility for their part in the scandal. No whitewash will cover the stain. Only full revelation and penance.
- No place for women. This is beyond comprehension. That a bunch of old men don’t want to relinquish any power at all to women, refuse to accept women priests, to allow altar girls, to, in fact, deny women of any meaningful say in the celebration of their religion or how it is interpreted is, in my view, sinful. American nuns have tried to force the Vatican’s hand in this regard, so far to no success other than not having been punished for their uppitiness. The new pope will have some very curious nuns — and women parishioners — to deal with.
- Contraception. The Church refuses to accept it even though 90 percent (or more) of Catholics practice it. Benedict himself infamously worsened the situation by going to Africa and urging residents of AIDS-plaqued countries to shun condoms. Doctrine over common sense and, some might say, humanity. Surely, none of the original fathers of the church could have foreseen such a situation in writing the Gospels. The fact that acceptance of contraception in general would significantly reduce the need for abortions, an outcome people of all faiths desire, has not persuaded the Vatican either.
- Homosexuality/gay marriage. If the church chose to ignore the pedophiles in its midst, it has not been silent on homosexuals — who represent no threat at all to it. They are unacceptable.
- Divorce, married priests. The one would make life for thousands of Catholics more livable, the other would swell the ranks of new priests immediately. Don‘t bet on either.
There are other issues, such as how to meet the needs of a church whose members are increasingly from the southern hemisphere when the majority of the cardinals are still from Europe and endorse Benedict‘s conservative philosophy, and when much of the non-Catholic world views the Church as hopelessly behind the times. It all points to the likelihood that, while the resignation of a pope might seem like a momentous decision historically, in the real scheme of things this one might be no big deal. That could be the saddest outcome of all.