As the College of Cardinals gathered in Rome this week to choose—for the first time in 600 years—one pope to replace another who is still living, I reflected on two essays I wrote about Benedikt during the eight years of his tenure.
The first essay in 2005 suggested that Cardinal Ratzinger, as the enforcer of Catholic dogma, might be transformed into the enabler of the entire Catholic community seeking a sense of purpose and a moral compass as the new pope. I argued that the Pope had to seek a balance between tradition and transformation in dealing with the challenges he confronted. These challenges existed within a church pulled in different directions by changes impacting both the sacred and the profane. The pope is a figure who embodies the commitment of faith and the conviction in the values and traditions of the Catholic Church. Being the first German pope in five hundred years, the question many raised about Benedikt was this: how would he see the balance between dogma and dialogue?
The second essay in 2008 focused on how the forces of science, politics, and global changes in an increasingly secular society make up the environment of the meaning and unity of faith among the one billion Catholics around the world. The past few popes have responded in different ways to the world they encountered. John, Paul, and Benedikt were all different in their capacity to build bridges and inspire. In the early 1960s, John XXIII opened the doors and the windows of the Church to change. His successor, Paul VI, returned more to dogma. Finally, John Paul brought still a different mix in a different environment with a personal charisma, which Benedikt, when he assumed the leadership of the Vatican, was unable to emulate in his eight years.
When Benedikt visited the United States, he was confronted with a Catholic community made up of a broad spectrum of those who may profess to be members of the Catholic Church, while at the same time supporting beliefs not exactly in line with the Pope. He was also confronted with the pain of the victims of pedophile scandals that have permeated the Church. And then there are other debates within the Catholic community concerning the role of women, abortion, and the rights of homosexual relations which continue to challenge the parameters of Catholic doctrine. Indeed, the very fact that the former pope will continue to live as a neighbor to the new pope raises some interesting questions about the role of papal infallibility doctrine among others since that situation is a unique one to say the least.
Benedikt is now neither chief enforcer, nor chief enabler. He is emeritus. A new pope will soon become the 265th successor to Peter, and this new pope will face the same challenges that confronted his predecessors.
Where will that pope come from this time? Since 40 percent of the world’s Catholics are located in Latin America, why not choose a pope from that part of the world for the first time? Over half of the billion Catholics around the world do live below the equator. Perhaps that is not likely though, especially if one were to recall that half the College of Cardinals are European.
However, the choice could also be a signal to a changing Catholic base. The fact is that the Catholic Church is losing its followers in places like South America to hard charging and well organized—and well funded—Pentecostal groups that have been attracting many thousands across Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Bolivia. The same phenomenon is occurring in parts of Africa, such as in Nigeria and other areas of the sub-Sahara, were Christian Pentecostal churches are increasing membership dramatically. The competition for relevance, recruitment, and revenue is increasing for the Catholic Church.
Whatever the reasons for Benedikt’s early retirement, the changing of the leadership in Rome offers an opportunity for the two thousand year old Church to celebrate its continuity, but also to—perhaps more importantly—renew itself.
The fact is that the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council was marked last year, but the council continued for three years until 1965. Presided over by John XXIII, the theme of the council was the relationship between the Church and the world. It was about ecumenical relations and religious freedom, and it changed the life of the church. Some were happy about all that, while others saw losses for Church coherence and dogma. Every pope who followed John XXIII attended that Council and presumably drew their own conclusions. But there was no doubt that the impact was historical.
The arguments then continue today, and it will be part of the new pope’s charter to see what he can do to help guide one of the oldest institutions the world has ever known into further uncharted waters. Maybe another Vatican Council might help after the white smoke has sent a signal for which a billion Catholics are now waiting. And maybe it could be held in Brazil. God knows that after hosting the World Cup in soccer and the Olympics during the next few years Brazil will have the infrastructure to host a Council meeting.
Finally, what will the legacy of Pope Benedikt be? Much has been written about that even before he was the Pope Emeritus. As the first German pope in many centuries, he was an added source of pride for German Catholics, and perhaps for non-Catholics as well. His role as a champion of what the Catholic faith stands for was one that he could easily fill in continuity with his lifetime of dedication to doctrine. He was not given the same historic moments of high drama as were those afforded to John Paul in Poland. Benedikt delivered testimony to the continuity of the faith in the face of severe challenges from within and outside the Church. His style was cerebral and that left him with a deficit of empathy in the eyes of many faithful followers as well as critics. Whoever the next pope is, the challenges to both the authority and the power of the Church will continue. Like Paul VI, Benedikt sought to reaffirm the theological cornerstones of Catholicism. He did not, and probably could not, find the bridge between traditions and the pressing need for adapting them in innovative ways. That will be left to his successors.