After Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would be stepping down from the papacy at the end of February, Catholics across the world began to process the information.
Considering Boston College’s Jesuit, Catholic affiliation, and the areas of expertise amongst the BC community, a number of University faculty members have already been contacted by major news organizations, including The Boston Globe, Fox News, the radio station WGBH, and The Boston Herald-to share their opinions on the situation.
“I think that it’s good that the Pope resigned,” said Stephen Pope, a professor in the theology department. “It’s an onerous job, and you need to have all your faculties fully operational-and it’s clearly worn him down … It takes some humility on the part of the pope to say, ‘I’m starting to deteriorate-or decline-and I don’t have the capacity I had in the past to do the job.'”
Theology professor Thomas Groome, chair of the Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry department at the School of Theology and Ministry (STM), echoed that sentiment. “I greatly admire Pope Benedict for deciding to resign, having recognized his failing energy for this most demanding of all Christian ministries,” Groome said in an email. “He said that he ‘examined his conscience before God’ in making the decision-a good model for all of us in making the important decisions of life. In resigning he has ‘raised the bar’ for his successors, leaving them free to make the same good decision.”
“It’s important, especially for precedent, for the future,” Pope said. “It’s tricky, though. What we have now is someone who resigns out of a sense of having done what he can do, and a sense of his own limits, and a freedom to let go-and I think many men, put in that same position, would have none of those three traits. They would have an overwhelming sense of duty.” Pope also noted that supporters in the Vatican might exert pressure upon a sitting pope not to leave.
Rev. James Weiss, director of BC’s Capstone Program, agreed that Benedict’s resignation is a positive occurrence. “[Benedict] was a good, gentle, holy, extremely intelligent theologian who saw the long-term problems facing the Church and put things in place to address those long-term problems,” Weiss said. “Unfortunately, he was blindsided by short-term crises that were other people’s fault-namely, cardinals in high office, including his secretary of state and his predecessor. John Paul II managed to keep a lot of problems covered up.”
“This is an historic event-it has not happened for 600 years,” said Rev. Robert Imbelli, an associate professor in the theology department. “And for the pope to do it of his own volition … it came as a great surprise to most people-is I think a sign both of his love for the Church … and an act of real humility-it’s not often that people step down from positions of importance-and I think it’s also an act of courage.”
Weiss also drew parallels back to the last pope who left the papacy before death, Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415. “Gregory XII recognized that the administration of the Church was falling apart,” Weiss said. “In Benedict’s case, when he says his health is not up to the job, what he’s reflecting upon is that the Vatican has fallen apart under his rule.”
“I think in the future, we can now talk about whether there should be term limits for the papacy,” Pope added. Currently, bishops must resign on their 75th birthday, and cardinals cannot vote in a conclave after age 80-the papacy is the only position that serves for life.
Imbelli noted that Benedict’s self-imposition of a term limit was not wholly unexpected. “I think it was a surprise in the sense that it happened now, with no forewarning,” he said. “What is not a surprise is that he was contemplating retirement … he said that, in effect, back in 2010. I myself thought-and this is my own speculation-that he would probably step down in November, at the end of the ‘Year of Faith,’ which began in October and will end in this coming November.”
Even so, Weiss pointed out that the proximity of Ash Wednesday to Benedict’s announcement of resignation was likely not coincidental. “Lent is a period of reflection and atonement for sins, and the Church has reached a point where everyone … is reflecting on the defects of the Church,” he said. He emphasized the symbolism of ashes: Lent signifies giving up one’s old life, and as the Vatican has announced that a new pope is expected to take over by Easter, the Church will begin anew just as Catholics celebrate the rebirth of Christ. “I think that Lent is a particularly good time for having a conclave,” Imbelli said, following the same line of thought. “I think the hope-the expectation-is that the new pope will be installed in time for Easter, and the celebration of having a new pope can join the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.”
In Pope’s opinion, speculation on Benedict’s successor was largely unproductive-as he pointed out, very few people predicted the appointments of either Benedict XVI or his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Pope did say that, although he doubted the chances were very good, he would like to see a non-European pope next. “The advantage of having a pope from the developing world is that most Catholics live below the equator,” he said. “It would be a way of signaling that the Church really is of the people-and the Church really is a global church, it’s not just a European church.”
For the Church to address its globalization, however, a number of issues need to be tackled. Pope stressed that the governance of the Church-transparency, use of power and accountability-must undergo significant reform. “The concern that Benedict had was primarily with secularization in Europe and in the developed world,” Pope said. “His mission was to try to re-Christianize Europe. It didn’t work-the forces are huge for secularization.” Pope said that this trend away from the Church worsened under Benedict’s governance, in part because of the clerical sexual abuse scandal, which surfaced under his leadership. “He was not really a promoter of transparency in the Church, and he did not really hold bishops accountable for protecting sexually abusive clergy,” Pope said.
A change in leadership may also be the optimal time to address issues in terms of how the Catholic Church is perceived. “From a North American perspective, there’s the issue of sex and gender,” Pope said. “I find that the biggest hurdle for young Catholics … is the Church’s attitude toward sex, generally, and especially toward gays. People at BC-students I’ve spoken to … many, many regard the Church as homophobic and as impossible for them. Not the majority, but many.” He noted that the Church has a tendency to send out mixed messages about homosexuality-saying, on the one hand, that sexuality was a gift, and on the other, that homosexual people could engage in no sexual conduct whatsoever. “What we need is a constructive sexual ethic, that allows people to be responsible, committed, and sexually intimate,” Pope said.
Apart from the Church’s social teachings, Imbelli said that fighting a decline in followers was a problem of great significance, and pointed to questions about evangelization in the face of increasing secularization. Especially in the West, he said, Catholic leaders are examining the question of “how to proclaim the gospel-how to present Jesus Christ-in a way that is both faithful to the tradition and yet attractive to the men and women of the 21st century.” Pope concurred, discussing the issue of vocations in the Catholic Church, and the declining number of men entering ordination. “Parishes are lacking priests-that means there’s no Eucharistic celebration … you can have the Catholic faith diminishing because of that lack of access,” Pope said. “How do you deal with the crises of clerical vocations?” Ordaining women or married men in an effort to increasing the number of priests who can serve, Pope said, are questions the new pope will have to take under consideration.
Additionally, Imbelli noted that, especially in the U.S., the issue of collegiality in the Church has been brought up-people are looking for more participation in the Church, rather than just a top-down mentality. In addition to a call for more accountability and transparency, desire for collaboration is a significant structural issue that the Catholic Church faces.
Pope also pointed to relationships with the Islamic world as an important area upon which the new pope should focus. “The pope has got to be someone who can reach out to Islam and help promote an understanding of Christianity among Muslims as nonviolent, and as … cooperative, as respectful-and communicate to Christians in the world a reverence for Islam, and a commonality with Muslims as monotheists, and as all part of the family of Abrahamic faiths,” he said. “That’s something this pope was not very good at.”
The legacy that Benedict will leave behind, therefore, is mixed. “[Benedict XVI] is probably the most theologically sophisticated pope that we have had in hundreds of years,” Imbelli said. He said he thought that Benedict’s writings, even those completed prior to his appointment to the papacy, would continue to influence the Church. “The sermons that he preaches-the homilies-I think are just magnificent. They have great spiritual depth, and I think they will be a lasting legacy.”
On the other hand, administrative issues may be what is most significant about Benedict’s term, at least in the short run. “I personally think God gave the Church a poor administrator precisely so that these problems could come to the surface,” Weiss said. “[These problems] cry out to be dealt with … Benedict’s poor administration was God’s gift to the Church.”