By Jim Drane
The Catholic Church is an institution that is older than any other in history. It has its own juridical system and its own form of leadership. Everyone knows that the pope is the supreme teacher in this religious institution. He is first and foremost a religious figure who celebrates religious liturgies and guides reflection on issues of belief and doctrine. But he is also supreme political leader in a government with its own legal system, court system, top-down authority systems.
Obviously, the pope is a religious figure who dresses in religious garb, celebrates liturgies and preaches wherever he goes. But the pope is also a supreme pontiff, an authority figure, a political figure. Political power was exercised throughout the church’s long history by popes, sometimes admirably, sometimes disastrously.
Now that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation, the whole world will have a chance to see how the selection of this political leader is handled from within the church’s political system. Selection of Pope Benedict XVI’s replacement will be made by a group of men from the next level of political power under the pope; the College of Cardinals. To be elected the next pope, some cardinal will have to have the votes of more than two-thirds of the 118 other voting cardinals.
Although the church has grown outside Europe (in Africa and South America), European cardinals hold more than half of the 118 votes. They have been chosen by two conservative European popes (Benedict XVI and John Paul II). But the voting does not take place along geographic lines. It will be interesting to see whom these elderly male church figures select.
Those who specialize in predicting the future based on mathematics claim that the next pope will be a European. Those who make predictions based on an evaluation of church needs look for an African or a South American cardinal to be selected. As is usually always the case, the person actually chosen will be something of a surprise. To go into a conclave of voting cardinals as the front-runner almost certainly means coming out as a loser. The whole world will be following the voting and watching to see who comes out dressed differently. Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement was a surprise and so will be his successor, I predict.
Ruling and teaching over one billion Christians is not an easy job. The tasks took their toll on Benedict XVI. He suffers from heart trouble, high blood pressure, strokes, prostate problems, walking instability, visual and memory and other brain problems. The pedophile priest scandal created an enormous stress on him and contributed both to his aging and his decline in health. Then there was the increase of atheistic belief and secularism in Europe and the U.S. Liberal and academically educated Catholics have been pushing for reunion with other Christians and removal of moral restrictions in the areas of sexuality and contraception. Finally, there is the tension between men in the Vatican and religious women who tend to be advocates for liberal values and the ordination of women to the priesthood.
The political or juristic dimension of the papacy is nothing but a stress and a challenge. The pope has to be the supreme teacher of Christianity as well as the supreme political leader of the world’s largest institution. Given the present state of the church, the pope today must also be something of a showman, salesman and a missionary in chief. Benedict XVI’s stress, strain, illness and aging came from all the political and administration problems he had to manage.
Benedict XVI is the first pope to resign in almost 600 years. He will go down as the best of all the retirees. Looking at the circumstances of the other papal resignations provides a lesson in church history. If things seem bad today, ours are no match for the scandals and problems of the church in the medieval period when the other resignations occurred.
There have been 265 popes in history. The pope who resigned almost 600 years ago, Gregory XII, did so in the midst of the Great Western Schism, when the church was split into separate warring factions. He resigned in order to help resolve that scandal. The church problems today, in comparison, look rather benign.
Benedict XVI was more of a theologian than most other popes. In addition to his Encyclicals on love and charity, he wrote three books on the life of Jesus which received wide praise. It is as manager and political leader that he came in for criticism. He angered some Muslims with a remark about Mohammed but then made a respectful visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in order to reconcile with them. He reconciled with right-wing bishops, one of whom, however, denied the Holocaust, thereby alienating most Jews. He met with survivors of priest sexual abuse but never disciplined the bishops who concealed their abuse. As a young priest he worked at the 2nd Vatican Council and supported changes, but then as pope helped conservatives turn back to a literal translation of the old Latin Mass. His butler was arrested for leaking documents that exposed a banking and other problems inside the Vatican bureaucracy.
Benedict XVI was always shy and withdrawn. He was never a person hungry for power. Even as a student he was introverted. Free from the stress of public appearances and world politics, he will get some rest and be at peace.
Drane, Ph.D., is the Russell Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.