The leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, shocked the globe on Monday when he announced he would be stepping down as pontiff—the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years. We asked Elizabeth Bucar, an associate professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, to weigh in on the consequences of this historic move.
Pope Benedict XVI is the first head of the Catholic Church to resign in nearly 600 years. How do you expect the transition of power to differ this time around given the outgoing pope is still alive? Is there any precedent for the kind of role the pontiff might play in his retirement?
The last case of papal resignation is that of Gregory XII, who renounced his claim on the papacy to end what is known as the Western or Papal Schism (1378–1417), when two men simultaneously claimed to be pope. That is hardly a precedent for Monday’s extraordinary announcement that Benedict, because of failing strength of “body and mind,” believed he had become incapable “to adequately fulfill the ministry.” So while we can find in history a handful of other popes who gave up the papacy, only time will tell what role this pontiff might play in the Church going forward.
We are being told that Benedict plans to go into isolation after he steps down and rededicate himself to his theological study and writing. Do not assume this is a sign that he will be less influential in the Church. A serious intellectual, Benedict was the architect of much of the doctrinal and ethical teaching of his predecessor’s papacy and is likely to continue to influence the Catholic Church from behind the scenes if he remains intellectually productive.
We are also being told he will not participate in the Cardinal conclave that will elect his predecessor. But he does not have to be cloistered with the Cardinals to wield influence over that selection. Benedict appointed 67 of the 118 Cardinals who will make the decision of who succeeds him. It takes two-thirds plus one of the 118 voting cardinals to elect a new leader. Do the math and you will see how much influence he already has had over this decision.
Benedict replaced Pope John Paul II, who has been regarded as one of the Catholic Church’s most influential leaders. What kind of legacy does Benedict leave, and what role do you think his resignation will play in shaping that?
Pope John Paul II was a tough act to follow. He was so charismatic, so energetic, so theatrically savvy—a Catholic Ronald Reagan of the 20th century. Many years into Benedict’s papacy my grandmother still referred to John Paul II as “the good pope.” Compare this to Benedict’s most often-used nickname: “God’s Rottweiler.”
To his credit, Benedict never tried to emulate John Paul II’s style of leadership. He never expected someone like my grandmother would warm up to him. And she never did. Neither did liberals or feminists. But conservatives loved him for his unwavering traditional theology. He stood firmly against same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, and artificial contraception. This theological conservatism is certainly one of his legacies.
But I also think he will be most remembered for the extraordinary details of his resignation. To give up such a position of power demonstrates Benedict’s humility, generosity, goodwill, and even his fragility—all of which makes him a moral exemplar for Catholics. Acknowledging his own limitation was also an indirect critique of the institution of the papal office, which assumes once elected a pope will rule for life. In a 2010 interview Benedict went so far as to say that if a pope realizes he is no longer capable of handling the duties of his office he has an obligation to resign. How does this complicate the idea of papal infallibility?
There are sure to be rumors in the coming weeks of why Benedict “really” resigned, rumors of some scandal of which the public is unaware. But I do not buy it. Not this pope. Not the pope who implied Islam is fundamentally violent, who warned of a “dictatorship of relativism,” who remained against women priests, who admitted in his memoir that he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth movement. This Pope is not afraid of controversy. Not God’s Rottweiler. The real reason for his retirement is more human, and that should be part of his legacy as well.
How much does papal transition affect the Catholic Church, its doctrine, and its role in the world? What challenges and issues might we expect the next pope—who is expected to be selected by the College of Cardinals sometime next month—to address?
Papal transition can have an enormous affect on the Catholic Church, both its doctrine and its role in the world. It might be easy to forget this given recent Church history. In terms of doctrine, Benedict’s reign was to a great extent a continuation of John Paul II’s. He is widely seen as a “caretaker pope,” elected to act as a bridge until the next generation of church leadership.
But Benedict was a caretaker because he was elected when he was 78. His resignation is likely to encourage the Cardinals to select a much younger man who could potentially hold the office for decades longer. This new pope will continue to deal with the sex-abuse scandal, priest shortages, diminishing members in the developed world, and tremendous growth in the developing world. The next pope will have to build bridges to other religious communities given the reception of some of Benedict’s comments as attacks on non-Christian religions, especially Islam. The Church might take up more earnestly the ecological and environmental issues facing our planet.
Given the makeup of the Cardinals, the new pope will likely continue Benedict’s conservative theological doctrine. But he will be a much younger man than Benedict and will likely come from outside of Europe. Benedict preached against the Africanization of the faith. What sort of changes would an African pope bring to the Church’s approach to religious globalization and syncretization?