When the immensely popular Pope John Paul II passed away in 2005, many believed that the Catholic Church was close to appointing their very first non-European pope. In fact, many believed that the cardinals would, in fact, choose an African cardinal to head the Holy See. After extended speculation, the cardinals emerged from conclave and chose Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI.
Instantaneously, the choice was identified as the Catholic Church wishing to move in a more conservative direction. However, it was fairly obvious that this was not a long-term decision — Ratzinger was 78 when he began his papacy. Even still, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world on Feb. 11 when he announced that he would be resigning due to his deteriorating health.
The resignation will certainly be Benedict’s most notable factoid during his ignominious eight-year reign marked by largely conservative rhetoric and accusations acquiescing to child abuse cover-ups. In 2010, Ratzinger himself was personally implicated in a cover-up in Munich — where he was then archbishop — when a known child abuser was allowed to be reassigned and continue pastoral duties, which included contact with young people. However, it would be unfair to place the blame of child abuse in the Catholic Church solely at the feet of Benedict. Even Pope John Paul II on his deathbed admitted — rather cryptically — that “Filth there is in the Church.” Benedict’s reign was also marred by a number of public embarrassments, including pleading for Jews to be “Delivered from their darkness” during a mass on Good Friday in 2007. During his work as a cardinal in the 1980s, Benedict oversaw the Catholic doctrine watchdog, known colloquially as “The Inquisition” and stalled the progress of “Liberation Theology” in Latin America which places theological emphasis on social justice and economic equality.
It has been nearly 600 years since a pope resigned for any reason. Gregory XII resigned in 1415 in order to resolve the Papal Schism that divided the church. Ratzinger’s reasoning is strange to say the least as many popes have continued their papal duties even at the brink of death; peak physical condition is hardly a prerequisite for a seat in the pope-mobile.
In the wake of the news of Benedict’s resignation, many quickly rushed to identify the most logical replacements for the pontiff, including two cardinals from Africa: 64-year-old Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and 80-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Another one of the front-runners is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. An African pope would make a lot of sense for the Catholic Church as there are approximately 158 million Catholics in Africa as of 2009 and it is thought that in 2025 one-sixth of the world’s Catholics will be from Africa.
In the coming weeks, speculation will run wild over who the next pope will be. Perhaps it is time for the Catholic Church to recognize its strength in Africa. Or is it time to reward a North American cardinal?
The question that remains is: who the hell cares about who or what the next pope is? The obsession with the election of the pope has reached an almost celebrity-apprentice level of drama while becoming more and more difficult to discern what possible connection this has to the real world in any way. Whether one is a buffet-style, once-a-year type Catholic or a regular at the lectern on Sunday mornings, the pope’s influence over the lives of Catholics — or anyone else for that matter — is infinitesimally small. Those that respect the institution will remain respectful no matter which geriatric, scarlet-clad fossil is chosen for the white robes. Those that resent the institution will remain critical, even if the Church decides to join the mid-20th century and recognize the emergence of Catholicism in Africa.
The Catholic Church has had innumerable opportunities to cast off the shrouds of antiquarianism and address globally changing demographics and ideas. However, if one is waiting for the Roman Catholic Church to suddenly update its image and change its position on homosexuality, contraception, women in the priesthood or, well, anything for that matter, it wouldn’t be prudent to hold one’s breath. There is a better chance of the entire conclave posting a “Harlem Shake” video.
Simply put, the Catholic Church’s bread and butter are tradition. No matter what one believes the intentions of Jesus or the apostles were, the Catholic Church has their own set of practices and ideals that have demanded respect from members of the Catholic community. People are drawn to the traditions and practices of Roman Catholicism and a part of that is the hierarchical nature of the pope and the cardinals.
With a new pope on the horizon, it would be wise for a hope-and-change style leader to emerge to fundamentally alter the perception of Catholicism in the 21st century. Change from the Catholic Church is like the continental drift, so gradual it is impossible to notice.