Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI shocked Catholics the world over with news that he is stepping down at the end of the month after less than eight years as CEO of one of the world’s oldest corporations and chief overseer of the largest philanthropic umbrella group known to man.
A former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—with a direct lineage to the Grand Inquisitors of the 16th century—the 85-year-old Pontiff kept his feet firmly planted in Church tradition while occasionally stretching a toe into the waters of modernity. He endorsed Latin-only rites; rejected compromise on social issues like birth control and the status of divorced parishioners; and rebuked American nuns for being too soft.
But he also labored to give Jesus a more human face, granted the first ever Papal television interview, and launched the Holy See into the Internet age with his very own Twitter account. His departure marks the first time in six centuries a Pope has left office still breathing, and it represents a crucial turning point for an organization facing what one Catholic commentator called the “largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history.”
Changing social norms and fallout from a seemingly endless sex abuse scandal have taken their toll. In America, the number of Catholics receiving the sacraments is in steady decline and longtime congregants fed up with the doctrinaire apathy of Church leaders are leaving the pews in droves. (My mother, a graduate of St. Maria Goretti High who never once served us meat on Friday, is much happier now as a novice Episcopalian). In Europe, which doesn’t get the benefit of our Latino immigration, the situation is even worse. Thousands of congregants are dropping from church rolls every year. Even in places like Spain and Ireland—where the vast majority of the population identifies as devoutly Catholic—fewer people than ever attend mass regularly.
Two places where the Church is growing are Asia and Africa, which hosts the world’s largest seminary (in Nigeria) and where the number of practicing Catholics has nearly tripled since the late 1970s. And Catholicism remains an integral part of life across South and Latin America—where 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live. It so happens these are also regions of the world that have never been represented by the Papacy. With Benedict’s resignation that may soon change.
Two African cardinals—Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana and Francis Arinze of Nigeria—and a Philippine, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, have all been named as possible successors to Benedict. Brazilian Cardinals Joao Braz de Aviz and Odilo Pedro Scherer, and Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, are also said to be in the running. A Pope of color would no doubt bring a fresh perspective to an office long dominated by Caucasian representatives of the developed world. But wherever the next Pope comes from, he will need to embrace the realities of the modern world or risk presiding over an institution on the fast track to obsolescence.
“The next pope has to figure out how to preach the gospel in a language understandable in the 21st century,” said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit Priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
But it’s more than just a matter of finding the right packaging for Catholic theology. Last year’s presidential election proved that Church leadership continues to have a voice in American politics; but it also showed just how out-of-tune that voice is with the song the rest of us are singing. With that in mind, I’m hoping the 118 members of the conclave charged with electing the next Pope will seek inspiration in the legacy of the reform-minded Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council—which sought to reshape Catholicism to address modern realities like racism, nuclear war and economic justice. The reforms led to a decades-long leftward shift among U.S. bishops that was soundly rejected by conservative traditionalists.
I agree with Catholic commentator Paul Donovan’s suggestion that the next Pontiff convene a Third Vatican Council to create a dialogue with disaffected Catholics and address issues like militarism, poverty and the environment. Writing for CNN, Donovan described what’s at stake if Benedict’s successor sticks with business as usual:
“The Catholic Church has continued to march backwards under Pope Benedict, seeming at times to be in a state of perpetual denial, whether the issue be that of child abuse, birth control, homosexuality or the role of women … A new pope who continues the backward approach of recent pontiffs will simply be one who continues to manage the decline of an institution that remains out of date for many in the 21st century.”
Of course not everyone agrees that’s the best way to go. Much like the soul-searching going on in the Republican Party, many Catholic traditionalists prefer a smaller Church committed to conservative principles to one that greets the world with open arms. I think that approach does an injustice to the millions of people who Catholicism might still speak to. As a former Catholic (turned Buddhist) with an enduring respect for the Church’s historical and spiritual legacy and a healthy fear of its unwarranted influence on American political life, I’m holding out hope that with a little introspection, the next Pope can replace the cranky old man of Catholicism with a fresh face.