With the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s plan to resign, the Roman Catholic Church stands at an important crossroad.
There are many Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have bristled at the increasingly hyper-orthodox hard line that the Vatican and many bishops have taken in recent years.
From the U.S. to Ireland to Sri Lanka to Brazil, the hierarchy has cracked down on those who have sought an open discussion of such issues as abortion, gay marriage, women priests and papal infallibility. It’s been an our-way-or-the-highway message, starting under Pope John Paul II and growing more strident under his successor Benedict.
Nonetheless, anyone tempted to celebrate the departure of Benedict on Feb. 28 needs to think twice.
More of the same
The new pope will be elected by a conclave of cardinals dominated by those who were given their red hats by John Paul and Benedict. For the most part, these prelates rose through the ranks because they toed the Vatican’s conservative line and didn’t rock the boat.
Don’t expect them to want to do any boat-rocking now.
In all likelihood, these cardinals will settle on someone who, they believe, fits the John Paul-Benedict mold, someone who wants to battle against what the church has always called modernity. Someone who believes that Catholicism has a corner on morality and ethics, and nothing to learn from the secular world.
In other words, more of the same.
A papal surprise
Yet, maybe not. Remember Angelo Roncalli.
An Italian cardinal, Roncalli was nearly 78 when he was raised to the papacy in October, 1958, and chose the name John XXIII. He was expected to be a caretaker Pope, and, as it turned out, only lived another four and a half years.
However, in those four and a half years, he remade the Catholic Church by calling the Second Vatican Council which heightened the role of lay people, revised the liturgy, emphasized an openness to other religious faiths and sought a free-flowing dialogue with the modern world.
Under the last two popes, the Vatican and hierarchy have done much to back away from the Council’s innovations. But that hasn’t stopped the church’s sainthood machinery from moving forward the case of the man known around the world as “Good Pope John.” In 2000, he was declared “Blessed,” the final step before being named a saint.
Can’t vote him out
Americans get frustrated with the papacy because the Pope is in the job for life (or, like Benedict, until he resigns). There’s no way to vote him out of office.
Not even the cardinals can.
Don’t you think that, when John XXIII began throwing open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air, they wished they could put the genie back in the bottle
A Pope is like a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Once in the job, a justice is free to see legal issues in new ways and isn’t tied to his or her previous positions. You can be sure that, when President George W. Bush appointed John Roberts as Chief Justice in 2005, that he didn’t envision Roberts being the deciding vote in favor of such a liberal initiative as Obamacare.
The same is true when it comes to electing a Pope. You never know.
The story is told that, when John XXIII called Vatican II, one cardinal said to another, “This holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”
We can always hope for another “holy old boy.”
Patrick T. Reardon