I have to admit that I was surprised by the news two days ago that Pope Benedict XVI was going to retire at the end of this month. I mean seriously, who has ever heard of a Pope retiring? No one in the modern age at least. The last time a Pope resigned was Gregory XII back in 1415.
So while the rest of the world governments and Catholic Christians grapple with implications of Benedict’s resignation and who is going succeed him, one also must think about the world that the future pope will be stepping into. This has been a bridge crossed over before since the death of the last Pope, John Paul II, in 2005. Many people thought of John Paul as a moderate pope; someone who while still holding onto to the creeds and doctrines of the ancient order, also tried adapt to the rapid changes in the modern world. Until, John Paul, adaption was not something the Catholic Church had been known for.
Pope Benedict’s reign of the church has been as a partial return to right of the spectrum. Before becoming pope, Joseph Ratzinger, was a known, staunch conservative on the church’s position on issues like open homosexuality, marriage, and women in the priesthood. Though he had made attempts at more interaction with other faiths of the world, his firm stance, created mixed results.
So what brave, new world can the next pope look forward to? Not a very friendly one if he expects to carry on with the conservatism that Benedict and his faction represent. Let’s start with the basics. We already mentioned the increasing openness and acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships. Christianity in general has never had a friendly history with this community, let alone the Catholic Church.
There is also more Catholic women wanting to enter the clergy and challenging positions that have gone against the more traditional interpretation of the role of women and women’s issues. And the elephant in the room, over a decade’s worth of child sex abuse cases that has all but destroyed the church’s moral authority in the eyes of many people across Western culture.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. There is the ever-shrinking number of church attendance and men entering the priesthood, especially in the southern hemisphere of the world. And the northern hemisphere is becoming more secular with the passing years.
These are but some of the challenges that await the new pope, and the Catholic Church. Benedict says that he is resigning due to ailing health concerns. He admitted that he was just too old for the office of St. Peter. I wonder if this is perhaps symbolic of the church as well. Clinging to old interpretations and moral presumptions has hindered the church’s ability to keep up with rapidly increasing knowledge and the failings within its own body. Pope Benedict’s successor is going to encounter a world that will say to him and the Catholic Church,
“The world has changed and so have we, and if you want us to listen, then you need to change to”.