New Pope faces a central problem
The death of a Pope is always a momentous event; the resignation of one is literally unheard of. Until now.
Pope Benedict XVI took the world by surprise when he announced on Monday that he intends to stand down on February 28, citing ill health in mind and body as his reason. Not since the Middle Ages has a Pope ever resigned. But it's a fact that Popes come and go. Death takes it toll on them, as on the rest of us. I am 65 and the next Pope will be my seventh.
While the Church goes on forever, its public face is very often that of the Pope, so who he is matters.
Benedict XVI has had the face of a quiet, shy man, an intellectual and an uncompromising adversary of what he calls relativism. This means he is passionate about the truth and the right of the Roman Catholic Church to define and to proclaim it.
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In today's world such a stance is not as popular as it might have been in a more deferential and absolute one. In the world, say, of his Hitler Youth. Like all German boys, he was recruited to join the organisation at the age of 14 and had no choice in the matter. But our experience forms and scars us all and his early years were formative, in the sense that they set ideologies against each other. There was a right way of understanding the world and our lives; and, as he soon discovered, there are wrong ways, such as Nazism.
He gave himself generously to his training as a priest, as a university lecturer and, of course, as he rose through the Church's ranks to become its chief enforcer, becoming head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The transition to the Papacy was seamless. He was the obvious candidate but always, given his age at the time – because he was 78 in 2005, when he was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II – he was going to be a transitional Pope.
He inherited substantial problems: the abuse of clerical power had resulted in scores of cases of child sexual abuse; increased secularisation in the western world meant the practice of religious belief was somehow discredited; vocations to an apparently outmoded celibate priesthood, especially in Europe, were falling; a desire on the part of conservative Catholics to returns to the certainties of the 1950s, including Mass in Latin, spelt doom for liberalism.
He tackled these problems by preaching passionately about faith, hope and charity, writing papal proclamations or encyclicals about these keynote virtues and living by his principles. But now his energy has run out and the aged academic is to go. The world will have to wait for that all-important puff of white smoke from that wonky chimney pot at the corner of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, ideally before Easter. This is where the Cardinals who are to elect Benedict's successors will be incarcerated until they can agree a choice. Or, as they'd say – and as Catholics believe – until the Holy Spirit indicates who should come next.
No one will envy the new Pope his task. After all, the problems remain. There are those who believe – and I count myself among them – that the root problem of the Roman Catholic Church is that it is too centralised. This means the first problem to address is the role of the Vatican itself. The Roman Curia is a closed book to most outsiders. It is easy to parody: "a group of men in frocks", "male, white and elderly", "ambitious and out of touch".
Now these stereotypes only circulate because, to be honest, we do not know who is who and what is what. The new Pope will need to use a big broom if he is to dispel the cobwebs and also, in fairness, our suspicions.
How to do this? Again, in fairness, the Church already has a mandate: the Second Vatican Council is now 50 years old, yet its teachings on authority have yet to be implemented. It spoke about the importance of the local or national Church and of setting up mechanisms for local bishops to be heard at the centre. Loyalty to the Church runs in two directions. Lay people should be loyal to the hierarchy, but the converse is also true. The hierarchy should be loyal to the People of God and listen to them. Power needs to be re-distributed more evenly.
Let me give an odd example: Knorr stock cubes. They are branded and instantly recognisable all of over the world. Yet Knorr takes immense care to ensure that the contents of each cube or stockpot is customised to the taste of each country where they are sold. Knorr manages to be both global and local because it takes its consumers really seriously.
My example will strike you as trivial and the logic isn't watertight. But you get what I mean. Another example: Microsoft recognises that there are at least four versions of English: UK, US, Canadian and Australian. Yet the Catholic Church has recently imposed an English version of the Mass on its followers that claims to be closer to the Latin original. The result: gobbledygook, with prayers that priests stumble over and responses that people can only mutter. I read a Tweet from a fan who claimed: "It's so nice to have the Mass just as Jesus said it." Oh dear. So many things wrong with that.
The new Pope will need to be holy and to deal with the Vatican, but also to reflect on how the Church inhabits the world. It is not enough to condemn contraception, gay relationships, euthanasia, abortion and, rather belatedly, clerical abuse of children. It is not enough to describe everything you disagree with as secular. The task is to become more discerning, "to read the signs of the times" and to reveal the Church and God's human face.