Pope Benedict XVI surprised just about everyone earlier this morning by announcing he’s quitting his post on February 28. In announcing his abdication, he said, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” The Church ofRome now faces the same issue it did when it selected Benedict XVI, whether to elect a conservative or find someone to break new ground. Odds are the cardinals will choose another conservative.
Elected at the age of 78, Benedict XVI was inevitably going to be a transitional figure, and after the papacy of John Paul II, that was probably a wise decision. US Vatican expert John L Allen wrote, “If John Paul II had not been Pope, he would have been a movie star; if Benedict had not been Pope, he would have been a university professor.” Indeed, for many years he was.
That he is a theological conservative is beyond dispute. He is uncompromising in his views of abortion, homosexuality and the role of women. Prior to his elevation to the papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger (as he was known in those days) was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In earlier times, this was known colloquially as the Inquisition. Those responsible for enforcing orthodoxy tend not to be free thinkers or doctrinal innovators.
His graceful departure has already sparked speculation on who will succeed him, and this will likely intensify as the conclave to choose a successor approaches; it is set to convene on March 1. There is a saying that if one enters the conclave a pope, one will leave a cardinal — meaning front-runners often lose. Speculation over precisely whom the conclave will select is rather pointless. What one can plausibly consider is the sort of man who will succeed Benedict XVI.
The Church is, above all else, interested in stability. The sexual abuse scandal has not gone away, and the Church is growing fastest in Africa. What the cardinals will look for is someone who can broaden the appeal of the Church without actually innovating in any material way. The relative liberalism seen in many congregations in the US just won’t sail elsewhere, and the next pope will have to be a man who can sell the old dogma in new packaging. If there is no such candidate, the conclave will settle on another conservative, transitional character. The princes of the Church may want another John Paul II, but they must face the fact that men like him are not all that common.
In one way, though, Benedict XVI has innovated. No pope has given up the office since Gregory XII quit in 1415 to help end the Western Schism (three rival popes at once). Before that, Celestine V in 1294 abdicated after just 5 months to live as a hermit and is now a saint. has been rare, but as people live longer thanks to medical advances, the act of giving up the office may become more common. While there will never be an ex-popes’ club as there is with former US presidents, the Church may well have to formalize the rules for being a retired pontiff. It’s not exactly the ordination of women, but it is an innovation. Change cannot be stopped, even if the cardinals choose their most conservative member to fill St. Peter’s shoes next.