NEW YORK—I’ll say this for Pope Benedict XVI and his unexpected announcement that he would step down as head of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of this month, and relinquish the burdens of an office that he says he no longer can carry: it’s a frank and commendable assessment of his own failed tenure, with the clear implication that faith, prayer, and an insistence on staunchly conservative views are no longer, if ever they were, enough to lead 1.2 billion Catholics into an ever more complicated world.
As has been noted in the media, his resignation is the first since Gregory XII did so in 1415. Among other popes who resigned, perhaps the most curious was that of Celestine V, who quit after only three months on the job, to become an itinerant monk—at the age of 79, not an example the 85-year-old Benedict is likely to follow, given his fragile health. Boniface VIII, Celestine’s successor, had him imprisoned so the man would not set an example for future popes. Celestine was canonized in 1313.
Benedict leaves a church still afflicted with an institutional reluctance to deal with the sexual abuse crisis that has plagued parishes and dioceses everywhere, the most recent example being Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles’s mishandling of cases where priest-predators were essentially shielded from prosecution; with the decrease in the number of active priests and nuns; an increasingly secularized Europe; and church attendance far below what it used to be. There were his ill-advised comments on Islam early on, and scandals right on his home turf—allegations of financial improprieties on the part of the Vatican, a butler stealing his personal documents, among others. He might have felt increasingly out of touch with a constituency largely based in what used to be called the developing world. Almost half of those Catholics now come from Latin America, and a quarter from Asia and Africa, with only a quarter coming from Europe. And yet given the makeup of the Cardinals who will elect Benedict’s successor, the likelihood of another European gaining the papacy is very strong. Nevertheless, I would think that electing a non-European, non-Western Cardinal makes sense. No Asian Cardinal has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but Cardinal Turkson from Ghana, Cardinal Dolan from New York, and Cardinal Sandri from Argentina have. When Jaime Cardinal Sin was alive, he was touted as a possible pope; this year, he would have turned 85 years old, and thus would not have been in the running.
My other larger hope, against all odds, is that whoever gets to sit as Bishop of Rome shake the institution up, to bring it, even if only partially, into the 21st century. It would start with allowing women the right to be ordained, and dispensing with the celibacy required of its priests. I know this has as much chance of happening, as the proverbial leopard changing its spots—or Imelda Marcos accepting responsibility for the terrible harm she and Ferdinand and their cronies inflicted on the Philippines—but one can hope, can’t one?
For that matter, why should a male automatically head the RCC? Why can’t the church be more like a woman, to put a spin on Professor Higgins’s lyric concerning his fair lady? Why not have the option of having a Mama rather than an il Papa? (Maybe the rock band the Mamas and the Papas might prove to be more prophetic than its members would have ever guessed.) I know this will be anathema to the staunch, die-hard conservatives who never met a restriction they didn’t like and a change they did like and who view even the merest hint of liberalization as an inevitable augury of a storm that will blow down their straw castles.
And the first step of course towards a mamacy will be letting women carry half of heaven through sacerdotal roles, much as is now done in some Christian faiths, in Judaism, and the sects that live in harmony on Mt. Banahaw. Women priests could then be appointed bishops, and later, cardinals, and thus be eligible for the top seat. That would be a miracle of course but miracles are precisely what this hidebound institution supposedly specializes in. Besides, doesn’t God work in mysterious ways?
Copyright L.H. Francia 2013