Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world when he announced during a meeting of cardinals in the Vatican that he intended to abdicate the papacy. This was a stunning development because there has been no papal abdication in about seven centuries and also because there had been no indication in the public arena beforehand that the pope would relinquish his office. Benedict—who will likely revert to using his baptismal name, Joseph Ratzinger—will retire to a secluded life of prayer in a refurbished convent within the walls of the Vatican. His successor will probably be chosen by a conclave before the Easter festivities next month.
There are many reasons why the world media, both secular and otherwise, have paid such close attention to this news and have covered it with such interest. It would be easy for some more cynical observers to dismiss this as an event relevant solely to the internal life of the Catholic Church, with no implications for the wider world as such. I, as a non-Catholic, would argue otherwise.
The papacy is the world’s oldest enduring political institution. It is, of course, at its heart a spiritual institution with deep significance for adherents to the Catholic faith; popes are believed to be successors of the Apostle St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles on whom Christ would build his Church. As Vicars of Christ, popes enjoy universal and immediate jurisdiction over the organizational, liturgical and dogmatic affairs of the Church and speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals. To any good Catholic, the pope is affectionately referred to and addressed as “Holy Father” as a sign of his universal ministry and his representation of Christ on earth.
Today, the papacy’s influence is primarily spiritual, but to suggest that it has stopped having political relevance is a major error. One need only read about Pope John Paul II’s impressive role in stirring potent anticommunist movements in Central and Eastern Europe to understand the power of the pope’s symbolism and the impact of his rhetoric in shaping political upheavals. The Holy See—under international law, a sovereign entity referring to the pope’s primacy over the Catholic Church—today maintains diplomatic relations with 179 independent states and is a permanent observer in the United Nations.
Much can be said about the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, née Joseph Ratzinger. Elected in 2005 after the historically monumental reign of Polish-born John Paul II, Benedict has never enjoyed the star power or media spotlight of his predecessor. He has instead carved out a reputation as a significant theologian-scholar whose impressive literary output and influence in shaping the intellectual character of modern Catholic theology is widely acknowledged and celebrated. He has undoubtedly returned a conservative bent to the papacy’s outward appearance, promoting the pre-Second Vatican Council Tridentine Mass and beautifying his own public liturgies through the use of Latin and ancient music. He has made significant appointments of conservative bishops throughout the world’s Catholic dioceses, moving the Fargo Diocese’s own socially and theologically conservative Bishop Samuel Aquila to Colorado as the new Archbishop of Denver. He has affirmed in perpetuity the Church’s stance on difficult social issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage, and has excluded from consideration the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.
The next pope will likely be cut from the same conservative theological cloth, so to speak. Of the 117 cardinals who will converge on Rome to participate in the next conclave, 67 were given their red hats by the reigning pope. The vast majority of the cardinals are European, even though the Catholic Church has in recent decades experienced its most pronounced growth and arguably wields its most potent influence in developing countries throughout Latin America and Africa. Those who hope that the next pope will be some kind of crusading liberal are in for a disappointment.
The Catholic Church over the past several centuries—and in the eyes of Catholics, ever since the Church’s establishment 2,000 years ago—has shown a remarkable resilience in maintaining the continuity of its doctrine. Even liberal Catholics’ beloved Second Vatican Council of the 1960s didn’t alter the Church’s dogmatic teachings, only outward appearances. The great helmsman of the council Paul VI himself affirmed the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception and women’s ordination. The language of the Mass can be changed and the role of the laity in governance and ministry can certainly be altered, but on questions of dogmatic teaching, Benedict, his predecessors and very likely his successors are unanimous in their clarity—no change.
I have no idea who the next pope will be. I hope for an African or Latin American pontiff, but this is not likely to happen because of the European character of the College of Cardinals. Some even suggest that the Archbishop of New York, the jolly Cardinal Timothy Dolan, is a contender for the office. Regardless of what happens, the papacy will continue to remain an institution of significant relevance not only for Catholics, but for the world. The coming weeks will be both fascinating and history making.