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White Smoke: But is change really in the air?

The remaining life of Joseph Ratzinger may prove to be more significant than the life of Pope Benedict XVI, the moniker under which Ratzinger led the Catholic Church for eight years. On Monday the 15th of February Pope Benedict XVI resigned, opening a flood-gate of conspiracy theories and gossip about potential successors, and also about the future of the Church.

Though Benedict couched his resignation as an exercise in Christian humility and human frailty, it is also a highly political act, and one that may reform the way the church is governed even as it preserves Benedict’s conservative agenda. Benedict ruled the Church during a period of intense controversy and burgeoning growth, and the pressure on his successor to improve its repute will be intense. Benedict may have been the last Pope of a model the world is familiar with – the kind expected to serve until death – and the first in what could be a dramatic new way of administering a spiritual empire of more than one billion living souls.

In Light of the World, a collection of wide-ranging interviews with Benedict by journalist Peter Seewald, published in 2010, Benedict emphatically asserts that a Pope may resign if “he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office.” In that case, Benedict states, “he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” But he adds, “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it.”

The abdication lends meaning to two seemingly random acts recently undertaken by the 264th successor to Peter. On April 28, 2009, while visiting the earthquake-stricken city of L’Aquila in central Italy, Benedict paid a visit to the nearby tomb of Celestine V, a 13th century Pope who reigned for only five months. After a moment of silent prayer, Benedict left his predecessor his pallium, a liturgical vestment received upon the beginning of his pontificate in 2005. Celestine is known for his choice to resign from the office of the papacy, and instead to return to a hermit’s life. For this so-called Great Refusal, Dante Alighieri damned Celestine to the torments of Inferno; the consequence of sinful cowardice. The Catholic Church, however, eventually made him a saint.

Benedict’s nominated his physical condition as his reason for stepping down. He recently sustained a head injury on a trip to Mexico, at the age of 85. Furthermore, Benedict had lived with a pacemaker since before assuming the Papacy, and his brother Georg even indicated recently that doctors had advised him to give up trans-oceanic flights. Given Benedict’s health is not deteriorating rapidly, however, he has not only seen the election of his successor but will likely also watch the new Pontiff take his fledgling steps in the job.

That change is stemming from Benedict’s abdication is already evident. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, is the first pope to hail from Latin America, and the first non-European pope in 1000 years. He is the first Jesuit to be elected. However, he is as expected, a conservative like Benedict – he is rumoured to have come second to Benedict in the 2005 papal election – , in part making his name through advocating against abortion and contraception. This legacy of conservatism does suggest, though, that the adjustments which Christianity makes in the immediate future may be less intense than if a more progressive leader had been elected.

Francis is inheriting a confusing climate in the Church’s history; he will face the world’s dilemmas as every Pope does, however he will do so with the weight of expectations borne out of the continued presence of his predecessor. Given that, at 76, he is younger than Benedict was at the time of his election, he may have more time to facilitate his desired adjustments to Church policy. The election of a younger candidate is perhaps a direct consequence of Benedict’s abdication, and may inform future agendas for the selection of Church leaders now that cardinals at conclave know that resignation is a viable possibility. Future appointments may also be affected by awareness of the incumbent and their wishes; the conclave will be trying to divine God’s vision while keeping one eye on the retired Pope.

Benedict’s resignation will also without doubt affect the religion as a whole. There is considerable doubt as to whether the church of believers who invested so much in the persona of the former, and still living, Pope will be able to share the same enthusiasm for the new Pontiff. The situation is a novel one, and spectators have voiced concerns that just through watching from the sidelines Ratzinger will be able to champion his conservative theological and social policies. Even if he remained silent for the rest of his life, it seems unlikely that Ratzinger’s a successor would reverse one of his decisions whilst he is still alive. This kind of informal influence has proved powerful in other cultures, such as premodern Japan, where retired shoguns and Emperors have continued to make pivotal decisions.

The resulting continuity of the old Pope’s agenda may contribute to the future shape of the global Catholic Church. The consistency of its social and theological policies, and how future Popes will rule in this new century, are yet to be seen. It must be hoped, however, that the lasting mark of Benedict’s abdication is one of progression and reform, not one that further entrenches old conservatism.

Giuseppe Spanti

The author Giuseppe Spanti

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