EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
After the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI
, March 2, 2013
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is primarily a matter of interest to Catholics who regard the Pope not merely as the Bishop of Rome and successor to St Peter, the leader of the apostles, but also as the vicar (i.e., personal representative) of Jesus Christ on earth.
However, in light of the enormous moral authority which the Catholic Church holds in Christendom and indeed as a moral beacon for mankind, the Pope’s resignation has far wider implications.
One of the most perceptive American religious publications is Christianity Today, a journal whose theological perspective can be described as evangelical Protestant.
Over the term of Benedict XVI’s eight years as Pope, his role has been highlighted in around 30 articles, opinion pieces, news stories and blogs on the Christianity Today web site. Not one of them was critical of his actions as Pope, and many applauded his willingness to give witness to the teachings of Jesus, particularly when he was strongly criticised in the secular media.
Its news story covering his resignation was headed, “Why evangelical leaders love Pope Benedict XVI”. It featured comments by many American evangelical leaders, including Pastor Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Pastor Anderson, who met the Pope at an ecumenical prayer service in Manhattan in 2008, said he thanked Benedict at that gathering for his strong pro-life stance on everything from abortion to end-of-life topics.
“As evangelicals, those are really important concerns for us. Often, if it weren’t for the Roman Catholic Church, we’d be standing alone,” Anderson said. “I’m grateful and impressed with his faithfulness in these areas.”
These generous sentiments were echoed in most of the media, although the Pope’s uncompromising commitment to tradition and to the unadulterated teachings of Jesus Christ and the Church were criticised in parts of the secular media — as one would expect.
Many Catholics were dismayed that the Pope should have resigned, believing that, once elected, the Pope should serve until death. The fact that no pope has resigned for 600 years has reinforced that disappointment, and fuelled speculation that there is some hidden reason for the Pope’s resignation.
Adding to these concerns were the statement by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwicz, archbishop of Krakow, Poland, and former secretary to Blessed John Paul II, “One doesn’t come down from the cross”, and Pope Benedict’s own statement, after his resignation was announced, lamenting disunity within the Church.
We will probably never know the full reasons for the Pope’s resignation. But governing the universal Church and giving effective leadership to its 1.2 billion adherents in a world dominated by instant global communications, the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, is a daunting task.
It would be a tragedy if a pope were to suffer an age-related condition such as dementia, which could deny the Church effective leadership for a lengthy period — even as much as 10 years.
Without the public having any details of his increasing frailty, it is at least understandable why Pope Benedict decided to step down.
For most people, attention is now turning to the election of the next pope. Fortunately, the 117 cardinals who will elect the next pope will be almost completely unaffected by the media circus which will surround the event: they will be totally isolated from the outside world from the time they enter the conclave until the next pope is elected.
In light of the fact that more than half the voting cardinals were appointed by Pope Benedict, and the balance were appointed by his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, we can confidently anticipate that the next pope will follow in their footsteps.
While much of the media speculation will focus on the nationalities of the papabili (the term used to describe potential popes), there is no evidence that cardinals will select the next pope on the basis of nationality. Rather, the cardinals will pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance on who is best able to meet the great challenges facing the Church in the contemporary world.
These challenges are both external and internal. On one hand, the Church’s essential spiritual function is challenged by the increasing secularism of the Western world, not only in Europe, but also in North and South America, and Oceania.
It is also confronted by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, where persecution of Christians is rife; in parts of Asia and across much of northern and central Africa; and by the continuation of Marxist-Leninist ideology in China and Indo-China.
Internally, the challenges are at least as formidable. Despite the clear leadership of recent popes, Catholic teachings are routinely ignored in many churches, educational institutions and health care services, not to mention by a surprising number of priests, religious and lay people who call themselves “Catholic”.
These are the issues which will confront the next pope.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.