New Pope. Same church?

Pope Benedict, who announced his resignation on Monday.

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.

Conservative forces

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.”

In one sense, my lawyer friend has a point. Italians know how to manoeuvre their way around a holy see that the dissident theologian Hans Küng this week called a “medieval/baroque court”. They are playing a home game, with the language, the fans, the media and usually the referee, the old guy in white, on their side.

When you move around the holy see, attending news conferences and ceremonies and interviewing senior figures, one thing is clear. Without Italian, you are dead. It is not just that the procedures, the thinking and the office culture are all Italian; it is that they are Italian in the style of the court in a 16th-century Tuscan city republic.

The issue is about more than media communication. The holy see, seat of governance of the Catholic Church, is peculiarly Italian but it is also riven with internal power struggles, rivalries and jealousies, as the papal butler’s “Vatileaks” made clear. As Küng pointed out this week, it might matter little if the college of cardinals picks an African, an Asian or a Latin American as the next Pope; such is the “romanisation” of church HQ that unless radical organisational changes are introduced to the curia, the Vatican’s administrative apparatus, the new man will simply be absorbed by its medieval ways and rendered relatively ineffective.

Küng argues that the “medieval-baroque Vatican court” must be transformed into a “modern, efficient central church administration”.

Is that really possible in this country? Italy does very good Chianti, extraordinary historical patrimony, wonderful fashion and many other things, but it does not do modern, efficient administration.

It is not a modern, transparent, accountable democracy. Transparency International, the body that monitors corporate and political corruption worldwide, rates Italy 72nd, just above Bosnia, Montenegro and Tunisia.

The Italian influence does not stop at linguistic advantage or curia squabbling. When the 117 or so elector cardinals, who are under 80 years of age, go into conclave to elect the new pope in the middle of next month, Italy will still be hugely over-represented, with 27 cardinals, a formidable conservative rump. By comparison, Latin America will have 19 cardinals, even though 483 million Catholics, or 41.3 per cent of the world’s Catholics, live in that region. Given this, and the fact that all the elector cardinals have been nominated either by John Paul II or Benedict, is it unrealistic to expect radical change from the next pope? Perhaps not.

By any measure, this will be an unprecedented conclave. For a start, the cardinals around the world have had plenty of time to prepare a strategy and avoid their mistake of 2005, when most of the cardinals arrived in Rome to find that a group of senior curia cardinals already had their candidate, Cardinal Ratzinger, up and running. And as dean of the college of cardinals, Ratzinger was so impressive in the manner in which he handled interregnum set pieces, such as the funeral of John Paul II, that many of the local cardinals simply nodded and said, “He’ll do.”

The resignation will make this conclave radically different. There will be no period of mourning. The grief that hung over Rome throughout April 2005 will be missing. Rather, this will be a state-of-the-church moment when just about everyone with something to say about the future of the church will be able to make themselves heard.

The lobby group for women priests will be burning pink smoke during the conclave, gay-rights activists are getting ready to protest in Rome, and we can expect much else besides, especially from the lobbies for the victims of clerical sex abuse. To protest when a much-loved figure such as John Paul II died seemed utterly inappropriate. To protest now, well, that’s different.

Discussing modern issues

Even if the conclave ran off against a background of tranquillity, many of the “modern” issues that dogged Benedict’s pontificate will have to be discussed not just in the conclave but also in the meetings the cardinals will hold in Rome beforehand.

Relations with Islam; relations with the Jews; sexual mores; the clerical sex-abuse crisis; the role of traditionalist groups such as the Lefebrvists; the fall-off in first-world vocations; ecumenism; the growth of groups such as the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland (there are others all over Europe); the persecution of Christians in parts of Africa and the Middle East; Catholic divorcees denied the Eucharist; these and others are all issues that sure to be in the cardinals’ minds, if only because these are some of the many challenges that will face the new Pope.

As to who it will be, the field is wide open. Most church insiders say the new Pope will have to be young – that is, in his late 50s or early 60s – vigorous, in excellent health and, of course, a stout defender of the fundamental tenets of Catholic teaching. After that, the geographical question of a European or a non-European pope is secondary. First of all, he has to be able to do the job whether he comes from Milan or Manila.

What will almost certainly be debated over the next six weeks is the Eurocentric nature of Benedict’s pontificate; his insistence that the traditional home of the church had to become the theatre of a new evangelisation. With the church in relative crisis in the developed world, this might seem to make sense. Yet, given that Europe now represents 277 million Catholics, or 23.7 per cent of the universal church, does it really make sense? Has the time come to radically change tack?

Another unprecedented aspect of this conclave concerns Benedict himself. He will take no physical part; that is clear. But will the fact that he is having his tea and playing his piano just a couple of hundred metres round the corner influence anyone?

In his address to the Roman priests on Thursday, for example, Benedict spoke at length about Vatican II, appearing to attribute misunderstandings and “banalisations” of the council to the media. Was he saying that his successor would do well to prepare himself a strong PR machine, something manifestly lacking in Benedict’s pontificate?

When Benedict was elected, many saw him as someone who would steer the Catholic Church through the transitionary period that would follow the 27-year pontificate of John Paul II. That time has passed. Many in the church may now be ready for change. But is the college of cardinals equally ready?

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