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The Times
  • Editorial: Remembering Pope Benedict, speculating about his successor

  • Popes are rather like Supreme Court justices. They don’t retire, don’t leave the robe behind. They’re carried out, they don’t walk out.

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  • Popes are rather like Supreme Court justices. They don’t retire, don’t leave the robe behind. They’re carried out, they don’t walk out.
    And so Pope Benedict XVI will forgive the surprise that accompanied his announcement Monday — on the cusp of Lent — that he will be stepping down as spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics at month’s end. For a very traditional pontiff, it was a very non-traditional thing to do. This has not happened in almost six centuries. That’s right, the Middle Ages.
    “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” the 85-year-old pope said to an assembly of cardinals, later issued as a statement from the Vatican.
    It’s not easy walking away from a job of such power and prestige, which may be why so few do. To be able, therefore, to recognize when it’s time is a selfless, even noble gesture.
    Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was elected to the papacy by his peers in 2005 following the death of the much-admired Pope John Paul II. It proved a tough act to follow. Pope Benedict was less savvy in the ways of communication than his predecessor, less comfortable with the spotlight, and he was burned on a couple of occasions because of it. He was a man of the written word, an intellectual.
    Some would suggest the Roman Catholic Church veered sharply to the right during his tenure, but that’s not really fair, as arguably Pope Benedict merely continued the direction the church has been taking since the 1960s, which were defined by the modernizing reforms and unintended consequences of the Second Vatican Council.
    To be sure, he reaffirmed the church’s stances on an all-male, celibate priesthood and on divorce; its opposition to same-sex unions and to the use of protective contraception (even regarding the spread of HIV/AIDS in Third World nations); its hard line against dissent. He favored a reintroduction of the Latin Mass. He spoke of the “courage of non-conformism,” “the dictatorship of relativism” and the “non-negotiable” nature of some issues, abortion certainly belonging in that category. What some would call stubborn, others would characterize as principled. Though reportedly distraught by the swing toward secularism in the West, he seemed willing to accept a smaller, purer church. Certainly in the United States, the Catholic Church has become a much more political, even partisan institution.
    Page 2 of 2 - But Pope Benedict also adopted some decidedly liberal positions — at least in the way such labels are attached these days — taking on the cause of economic justice and equality, for example. He defended the rights and humane treatment of immigrants and refugees. He went to bat for persecuted Christians across the globe. He was more ecumenical than many who came before, seeking to build bridges with other denominations, though notably the church’s relationship with Islam did become strained following one, perhaps insufficiently considered if not entirely taken-in-context comment early on.
    In some ways he was the victim of unfortunate timing, as he came along when the sexual abuse scandal within the priesthood was reaching its apex, diminishing the church’s moral voice and causing many to lose faith in its leadership, some of whom vacated the pews. He rightly condemned the crimes being committed and the cover-ups of them. He met with victims. But his efforts to more forcefully confront and excise that cancer within the church crawled along as far as many were concerned. A large and arguably insular bureaucracy at the Vatican is no small hurdle to overcome.
    Pope Benedict’s departure paves the way for a successor, who could be named by Easter. Will the living, former pope exert any influence in picking that person? Will it be, for the first time, a non-European? An American? Someone younger? Frequently in press reports references are made to “a church in transition,” which may be more wishful thinking on the part of the authors than a reality-based analysis. In many ways the church gives every indication that it wants to remain unchanging in an ever-changing world, which makes it the object of criticism to some and a great comfort to others.
    In any case, trying to be a shepherd to 1.2 billion people is a tough, demanding job under the best of circumstances, even more so given the perhaps unprecedented challenges of the moment. May Pope Benedict have the peace and quiet he’s long  cherished in his soon to be less-public life.
    Peoria, Ill., Journal Star
     
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