Paul VI

+/- Benedict XVI

The Papacy. It’s been called the most exclusive club in the world. The members never meet, since there is only one living at a time—until now. Pope Benedict XVI has announced his retirement and resignation as Pope effective on the last day of the month--February 28th.

This is not quite as shocking as the secular media would have us believe. True, it is an extremely rare occurrence. Although Gregory XII resigned in 1415, that was in the interest of healing a church divided by multiple claimants to the papal office. The last pope to voluntarily resign was Celestine V in 1294. Still, this is not really shocking news. In an interview in 2010 for the book “Light of the World”, he indicated that he would was open to resigning if his health impaired his role in the Church. That is what has happened. So what does this all mean?

Once again we find the media looking for some sensationalist angle. Will there be a schism within the church—one group loyal to Benedict, the other to his successor? This is utter nonsense. There will be only one Pope. When Benedict resigns, he will no longer be the leader of the Catholic Church. Period. The Cardinals will elect a new Pontiff, and Benedict cannot change his mind should he not personally approve of the choice.

The new pope may choose to consult with Benedict. That is unlikely. After all, the pope has a unique exercise of power and authority. But even if Benedict’s successor chooses to consult with him, the consultation will have no more sway than any other papal advisors. In any event, it will be only advice and opinion. To borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, whoever is elected will be the final decider. What is far more important is what kind of person the College of Cardinals choose to succeed Benedict and what direction he wants to move the Church.

When John XXIII was elected, he was expected to live only long enough for Cardinal Montini to secure enough votes for his own election, which he did after John’s death, thereby becoming Pope Paul VI. However, the real shock wave to hit the Church was John XXIII’s announcement that he intended to call an Ecumenical Council. Caretaker Popes are not supposed to do that! He recognized that the Church needed modernization or else risk irrelevancy in the world. It was a two-crested wave. Shock was in the air, but so was hope.

Most people only know the Second Vatican Council for its document “Sacrosanctum Concilium--Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”. This is because most Catholics primarily interact with the Church at Mass and when celebrating the other sacraments. And indeed, that document was significant. Praying in a language that both God and laity understood enabled a much fuller participation by worshippers.

But there are other, arguably more important, documents that emerged from the Council and altered the course of Catholic history. Among those are the documents “Lumen Gentium--The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”, “Nostra Aetate—Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, “Unitatis Redintegratio--the Decree on Ecumenism”, “Dei Verbum—Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”, and “Dignitatis Humanae--Declaration on Religious Freedom”.

Combined with its other ten documents (sixteen in total), the Council unleashed a radical overhaul of the entire Church. The Church redefined itself as the “people of God”. Power was decentralized with the establishment of Conferences of Bishops, the laity assumed more responsibility—however limited—in Church administration. Scripture scholars and theologians were consulted and occasionally deferred to by bishops who lacked the expertise of academics. Finally, respect was given officially to the individual conscience and to non-Catholic religious bodies.

But the hope that was bred from the Council was not to last. Pope Paul VI presided over the second part of the Council, but he lost his nerve when it became necessary to decide on the morality of contraception. He chose to reject the recommendation by the majority of the commission’s members to modify the Church’s teaching. This majority included every layman and laywoman, the only ones who were married. Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was appointed to the commission by Paul VI. He later became John Paul II.

John Paul was a worldwide phenomenon, traveling more than any of his predecessors and bringing the presence of the Papacy to all corners of the globe. However, he also began an effort to retract from the Second Vatican Council, particularly in the area of Church authority. Benedict XVI furthered that effort. Not unlike the Council, itself, most people notice the regression while at worship. In an example of full-circle metaphor, the English-speaking world now prays in a language that, while officially English, is understood neither by the people nor by God—and the Conferences of Bishops let it happen. John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointed the most conservative and intellectually vacuous men available as bishops, and they succeeded in fully emasculating the national and regional Conferences of Bishops.

To be fair, change is rarely easy, and many people welcomed this regression. There is illusory comfort to restriction and absolute, definitive answers to complex questions. Most people do not enjoy uncertainty. John Paul II and Benedict XVI gave many people what they wanted, but in the process failed to lead. And yet, even Benedict’s detractors must admire his deep commitment to the Church and his willingness to hand over responsibility to someone in better health, someone more capable of the modern demands of the papacy. Not many people can relinquish the kind of power that comes with being Pope.

So the real question facing the Church in the next couple of months has nothing to do with the fact the Benedict will resign rather than die in office. There is no threat of schism. There will be no competing claims to authority or decision-making. The real question is what kind of Pope the cardinals will elect. Will it be someone who recognizes the present and looks to the future, or someone who can only see the past? The Catholic Church does not believe in re-incarnation or we might hope for John XXIII to return. I think I would settle for someone less authoritarian. It does not matter that Benedict XVI will still be alive. Let’s see if the Holy Spirit is alive.