CROSSVILLE — After seven years as head of a global church of over a billion members and as CEO of the Vatican City State, with full executive, legislative, and judicial powers over that sovereignty, Pope Benedict XVI plans to retire on February 28. At the age of 85, he will become only the eleventh pope to retire rather than die in office, the first to do so in 598 years.
In an interview two years ago, Benedict said, “If a pope realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
During the past seven years, Benedict wrote a three-volume set of books on the life of Jesus, produced three encyclicals, gave more than a thousand addresses, and made more than twenty international trips. Much of his effort, however, has been in trying to reverse the liberalizing trends of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII, and liberation theology.
When the cardinals meet to elect a new pope, they will have several important challenges before them. Up to now they have represented primarily the European region of the church, mostly Italian. Today, however, only 25 percent of Roman Catholic members live in Europe. Forty-two percent now live in Latin America, and 15 percent in Africa. Will this be the time to choose a pope from another part of the world? Half of the cardinals, however, have been chosen by Benedict and tend to reflect his particular perspectives.
There have been a number of problems confronting the church these days: a decline in church membership (often blamed on secularizing trends around the world), a shortage of priests and nuns, and damage to church morale from unaddressed instances of sexual molestation. Birth control, contraception, homosexuality, and marriage equality have become hot button issues in and outside the church. And underneath the church’s entrenched patriarchal traditions and structures one can hear the quiet voices, often from women religious, calling for changes such as the ordination of women, making priestly celibacy optional, and providing greater incusion of non-clergy Catholics in the church’s decision-making processes.
Daniel C. Maguire, professor of moral theology at Marquette University, has written a challenging word that needs to be heard: “The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI may be the most influential act of his papacy. It opens a window of opportunity for serious reform, starting with the papacy, in a church roiled in mulitiple crises. If the scandal of the papacy as one of the last absolute monarchies in a democratizing world is not addressed, all other reforms will falter. Catholic scholarship is clear. There is no evidence that a papal monarchy was Jesus’ idea.
“Of course, if you accept that Peter was the first pope, there would be lessons. Peter was married. A happily married pope with a strong spouse and children could think more clearly on sexual and reproductive issues and not let the church get mired in obsessions that obscure the message of justice and peace that Jesus preached.
“Of course, no change will occur if the Catholic laity act like sheep awaiting word from their all-male shepherds.”
The conclave to choose the next pope must begin within twenty days of his February 28 retirement. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.
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This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in “Lion and the Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.