The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI, that he intends to abdicate February 28th, raises many questions and opens many possibilities. Since it's the first time in 600 years a Pope has stepped down voluntarily, instead of dying in office, Vatican officials are scrambling to figure out the logistics of the transfer of power.
All kinds of questions come to mind. After a Pope dies, the conclave to elect a new one is called within 10 days. How many days after a Pope resigns do the cardinals meet to vote? Can the old Pope vote for the new one? Is the old Pope still called Pope? Where does the old Pope live? If the Pope is the successor to St. Peter, who is the successor, the new Pope or the old one? If both of them are, then can there be two Popes at the same time? Does the old Pope get to sit in the secret conclave and influence the choice of the new Pope? When a Pope dies, his papal ring is destroyed and buried with him. What happens to the papal ring when he resigns and is it still a symbol of the papacy?
There are probably more questions, with the most prominent being why did Benedict do this? You can take him at his word and believe his health was deteriorating and he wasn't up for the job anymore. This is probably part of the reason. Benedict is alleged to have been scandalized by watching Pope John Paul II whither away and his last years reduced to moving him from place to place with little accomplished. He had given an interview, two years ago, suggesting if a Pope became too infirmed to do the job, he had a duty to step down. However, Benedict also faced a number of scandals including accusations the Vatican Bank was laundering drug money and the sex abuse scandal continued to spread worldwide. (the recent documents released in Los Angeles raise serious questions about whether Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, ignored warnings and refused to act on a number of suspect priests brought to his attention by then Cardinal Roger Mahoney.) The Pope also was facing a crisis in America and Europe. The number of Catholics continues to drop along with the numbers of priests. (if not for Hispanic immigration to the U.S., Catholic numbers would be down significantly) This is a Pope who is largely irrelevant to a majority of Catholics in North America and Europe. All of the above could have weighed on him and affected his decision.
The focus now turns to his successor. The fastest growing region of the world for Catholicism is Africa. The choice of an African Pope would sound a loud message about the importance of this continent for the Church. An African Pope would be a voice against the rampant materialism of the West. An African Pope would be a strong voice against income inequality and the gap between the rich and poor nations. He would call for a new view of capitalism. (Pope John Paul II had taken the position free market capitalism was immoral.) An African Pope would call for more corporate accountability, regulation, transparency and would be a voice for the environment and climate change both of which are huge concerns for the African people and world wide. (the rights of people to control their own natural resources and water, opposing the continued encroachment by corporations and nations, such as China, would also figure prominently into his approach) Much of the above could be applied if the Pope were elected from Latin America.
While choosing a Pope from Africa or Latin America would mean a prominent economic voice for the poor, and would call on the developed nations to change their actions and priorities, they would also be socially conservative. They would continue to support a celibate, all-male clergy. They would condemn homosexuality and be opposed to the use of contraception. They would be adamant in their opposition to abortion. All of these issues are issues the majority of Catholics in America, Canada and Europe disagree with and would be a source of conflict with any new Pope.
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The Church could choose an Italian Pope. Such a choice would send a signal the status quo is to be preserved and would be intended to tamp down any talk of change whether economic or socially progressive. One thing seems clear, there is little to no chance of an American being considered. No American cardinal has a strong presence or worldwide reputation. No American cardinal has much to say about the Church in the developing world nor have they shown any inclination to address the materialism and corporatism which defines this nation.
The Church in America and Europe is in deep trouble. The crown jewel of the American church, its education system, is slowly being dismantled as diocese after diocese closes more and more of their parish schools. Catholic universities are having an identity crisis. Should they be the Catholic versions of Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell), Ave Maria University (started by Dominoes founder Tom Monaghan) or Bob Jones University, and be fundamentalist propaganda machines designed to force feed theology to their students accepting no dissent? Or are colleges like Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco supposed to be open markets of ideas, discussions and values? Regressive Catholics were outraged when Notre Dame invited President Obama to speak. Some local bishops and cardinals have tried to rein in the secular realities of many of these institutions. As the education system is threatened, the American Church faces a bigger crisis as the priesthood in America is in free-fall. The average age of a priest in this country is approaching 65. As more and more priests retire, there are few replacements. Perhaps even worse, the entire millennial generation, my children's generation, could be lost to a church which has little to say to them and few relevant messengers. (it isn't an accident that as priests aged and became scarce, and its social positions became more polarizing, more and more young people identify as nones, meaning they profess no attachment to any religion) There is no generation of priests for these young Catholics. Unlike Africa and Latin America, where vocations soar, vocations in America have decreased and those being ordained are generally in their thirties or early forties. Their regressive social message is also an obstacle for young Catholics. (there is talk of importing priests from Africa to serve parishes in this country. It is a band-aid solution to a much larger problem)
I have no crystal ball, but my hunch is the next pope will not be Italian. What I do know is whoever the new Pope is; he faces a Church in crisis all over the globe. The abject poverty of the third world, in contrast with the vast wealth of the developed nations, cannot be ignored. The lack of inspiration in America and Europe, shortages of priests and dwindling numbers have to be addressed. In Latin America, evangelical denominations are making strong inroads into traditionally Catholic communities. The Vatican Bank must change its policies and the new Pope has to acknowledge a Church more concerned with its reputation than with the welfare of its members. The new Pope must confront a misogynist structure which relegates over half its members to second-class status. The inequities of the international finance system must be addressed and attacked.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the new Pope will be to address the call of Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit prisoners and produce a Church which reflects the good news of the little Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. It is a Church which has lost its way. Can the new Pope guide it back to its roots?