I was talking Monday morning with a friend in Arizona with whom I frequently discuss political and religious affairs. He noted toward the end of our conversation that the pope had resigned.
Imagine my surprise. After all, the last time this happened was more than 600 years ago.
The pope's resignation is significant for several reasons. First, he is the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. Second, the church possesses a significant international soft-power instrument over moral and social issues. And finally, it is the only religious entity with diplomatic recognition.
His announcement instigated an immediate, unsurprising global reaction.
Pope Benedict leaves a mixed legacy and an uncertain future for the Catholic Church. Some thoughts:
- Pope Benedict is possibly a transitory figure
- The Conclave may not elect a European or an American pope. The next pope may well come from South America or Africa.
- The Vatican's next leader will have an array of social problems and inter-religious issues to address. The most notable are the ongoing clerical child sex abuse scandal and the church's relationship with the Jewish and Islamic communities.
Pope Benedict's record, views and issues merit a separate column. There was wide speculation from his papacy's beginning that he would have a short tenure. He became pope in his late 70s.
Pope Benedict governed in the shadows of one of Catholicism's most beloved leaders, Pope John Paul II. He also inherited a church experiencing a demographical, social and political transition. And Benedict possibly represents the last of the church's conservative old guard.
A possibility exist an American or European pope will not be selected for several reasons.
The international Catholic community has a mixed relationship with its American counterparts. U.S. Catholics are admired, considering they furnish more to charity than any other group combined. But antagonism exists toward American Catholics since many question the church's social and theological teachings (it is the church's only branch with a separate doctrinal office).
There is also arguably a wariness of bestowing the United States with additional international clout. An American pope would add to this perception, right or wrongly.
A South American or African pope cannot be discounted for different reasons. The church's demographic center has moved from Europe to South America and Africa over the past 100 or so years. More than 55 percent of Catholics come from South America and Africa versus 23 percent for Europe (even less for Americans, Asians and all other combined). Their attitudes toward social and moral issues are different than their European and U.S. counterparts. The next pope may be more representative of the majority members' views.
The next pope will need to confront several issues. Probably the most immediate problem involves the church's child-sex scandal. The controversy has tarnished the church's image and decreased membership.
The Vatican's new leader will need to ensure that any clergy involved in the child-sex scandal are appropriately punished and possibly expelled from leadership positions, depending on the circumstances. Pursuing this action will enhance the church's attractiveness to individuals who have left the church because of the Vatican's management of the scandal.
The other main issues relate to the church's relationship with the world's Jewish and Muslim communities. Both were strained during Benedict's tenure.
The prime catalyst straining the church's relationship with the Islamic community occurred during a speech he made in Germany. Various media outlets excerpted, and took out of context, one section of his lecture regarding Islam's historical nature. The results led to a severe strain in Islamic-Catholic relations.
The Vatican's ties with the Jewish community had similar tensions. Benedict reinstated four excommunicated bishops, one of whom denied that the Holocaust occurred. He also restarted the sainthood process for Pope Pius XII, a pope who many Jews argue disregarded the Judaic community's plight during World War II.
Improving the Vatican's relationship with both communities will be a top priority for the new pope. The Vatican is at a crossroads. How the next pope addresses these issues will set the church's direction for the next several decades.
The type of pope chosen may be determined by the length of the conclave, the papal selection process. A short conclave may produce a European, traditionally conservative pope. A longer conclave may lead to the selection of a more moderate leader, possibly from South America or Africa. It also increases the chances of a surprise candidate emerging.
What is certain is much of the world will be focused on the Vatican once Pope Benedict officially resigns Feb. 28.
Matthew Kennedy has a master's degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He's lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.