The surprising announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will step down from the papacy at the end of this month is a reminder of the important role the Roman Catholic Church plays in the world, touching the lives of hundreds of millions of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Catholics responding to the announcement praised the pope’s decision as an act of humility, kindness and generosity. Rather than clinging to his position even as age undermined his strength and his ability to lead, Benedict chose to turn the immense authority of the papacy over to someone new. It has not happened since 1415.
There are about a billion Catholics in the world, a far-flung flock that reflects a great diversity of views. In Europe and North America, the church is shrinking, and Catholics often reject official doctrine on issues of gender and sexuality, including birth control, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, the ordination of women and the celibacy of the priesthood. Moreover, Catholics’ faith in their church has been shaken by continuing revelations about the sexual abuse of children by priests and the church’s record of complicity in those crimes.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America the church is growing with a vitality missing in many Western parishes. Indeed, the influx of Latino immigrants to the United States is already transforming the church here. The social mission of the church is alive in regions where poverty is widespread, and traditional mores in those regions mean people tend to accept the church’s conservative teachings on sexuality.
Benedict’s papacy followed that of the most charismatic pope of modern times, John Paul II, and his message has been similar to John Paul’s. He has emphasized the dignity of the individual and the importance of combatting poverty, greed, materialism and the failures of capitalism. But like John Paul, Benedict has maintained a hard line on issues relating to sexuality and has tried to promote traditional Catholic doctrine and practices.
Strict adherence to traditional views and practices has real world effects beyond the church itself. Use of birth control is widely understood to be crucial to allowing women in poor countries to limit the number of children, freeing them to be more constructive participants in their families, societies and economies. Economic and social progress occurs when women gain autonomy beyond the limits imposed by traditional practices. And yet Catholic teaching sometimes inhibits these gains.
Benedict has won praise for addressing the priest abuse scandal and ordering the church worldwide to take an aggressive stance to prevent abuse and to confront abusive priests. And yet the horror visited upon thousands of children around the world over the years has caused many Catholics to question the church’s traditional position on priesthood celibacy and the ordination of women. It has been a tragic loss for many Catholics that the institution they look to first for spiritual guidance has been afflicted by pervasive corruption.
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 so the church could end the schism that had divided it, with one pope sitting in Rome and the other in Avignon, France. In 1294 Celestine V resigned after five months as pope in order to live a life of seclusion and contemplation. His successor locked him in a castle where he died after 10 months.
Pope Benedict IX was an 11th century pope whose godfather bribed him into resigning the papacy. That was in 1045. The godfather became Pope Gregory VI, but Benedict IX changed his mind after resigning, and so two popes reigned until Henry III, the Holy Roman emperor, came to Rome, recognized Gregory, then prevailed upon him to resign in 1046.
In those days the pope was a monarch among monarchs who ruled over not just souls, but also geography. Nowadays the pope has become the symbol of a tradition going back to St. Peter. On this rock I will build my church, Jesus said. Benedict XVI has decided he does not have the strength to serve as the rock required by hundreds of millions of people who look to the church for solace and guidance.
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