New Pope. Same church?
Pope Benedict, who announced his resignation on Monday.
Pope Benedict's resignation is the most radical move in the Catholic Church in 50 years. Could it open the doors to a wider transformation? Don't count on it
So, ironically, Benedict XVI, a pope widely perceived as a safe pair of hands and even more conservative than his predecessor, may have provoked the greatest change in the Catholic Church’s modern history. Cautious, timid, stubborn old Benedict, by stepping down from the Seat of Peter, could have initiated a process of radical rethinking not seen since the second Vatican Council, in the 1960s.
The holy father’s resignation is an intrinsically modern act, one that seems more temporal than spiritual, even for a man of deep faith. It makes him look less like the holy father of the universal church and more like the resigning CEO of a multinational company with a staff of 1.3 billion.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the former private secretary of John Paul II, said in a widely reported comment this week that popes “do not come down off the cross”. While the cardinal of Cracow might claim that his comment was taken out of context, it nonetheless touched on a cornerstone of Catholic experience.
Canon law and theological argument suggested that a papal resignation was always a possibility, but no one has lived through one since the time of Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415. Popes, we thought, go out with their boots on. But if the idea that a modern pope never resigns was simply a question of custom and practice rather than anything to do with Christ’s teachings, all sorts of possibilities present themselves.
Clerical celibacy and the ban on women priests, to name but two issues, are also expressions of custom and practice more than of any specific teaching by Christ. So can they now change, too?
Last week in St Peter’s Square, this correspondent ran into the worldwide head of one of the oldest religious orders in the church, a man with a vast experience of missionary work, especially in Latin America. He was positively bubbling. He confessed that in 2005, when he saw Joseph Ratzinger step out on to the papal balcony as Benedict XVI, he was deeply depressed, adding that it took some time for him to overcome his negative feelings about the new pope.
Now he and many others hope that the resignation can change some of the ground rules, making it possible for the church to reconsider its position on myriad issues, from social justice to sexual mores.
It is equally conceivable, though, that the conservative forces that have gripped the Catholic Church for the past 35 years of Wojtyla and Ratzinger rule will continue to run the show.
A couple of months ago, at a Vatican-run ceremony in a central Rome church outside the holy see, I ran into a distinguished Italian lawyer.
The conversation quickly turned to church affairs and in particular to the turbulent recent times experienced by the pontificate of Benedict XVI, as most dramatically illustrated by the trial last autumn of the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, the man convicted of stealing confidential documents from the papal apartment.
My learned colleague shook his head sadly. Things have got badly out of hand, he said. This whole mess should never have happened. “What we need here, right now, is an Italian pope. The Italian popes know how to run the church.”