Popes just don’t retire, or so it seemed. But Benedict XVI can cite four precedents – the last one occurring 598 years ago. No one will accuse the Roman Catholic Church of being short on institutional memory.
The papacy doesn’t translate well in the United States, a whippersnapper country with only a few centuries behind it.
Many Americans thought they were knocking Joseph Ratzinger when they called him a traditionalist and an upholder of orthodoxy. In his world, those are not insults. The Roman Catholic Church and its Orthodox cousins have persisted all these centuries precisely because they have insisted on their core traditions through centuries of social revolutions.
The United States is the global hothouse of social revolution, and Americans tend to think of themselves as challengers of authority. The country’s dominant strain of Christianity – Protestantism – has “protest” built into its very name. But even American Catholics have been vexing the Roman hierarchy headaches for decades – by rejecting the church’s teachings against contraceptives, for example.
There’s no chance the Roman Catholic Church will start abandoning millennia-old dogma and embracing social trends with the resignation of Benedict. Benedict himself – as pope and as aide to John Paul II – has supervised admissions for the College of Cardinals and recruited only strictly orthodox bishops. The cardinals who will soon meet to choose his successor will pick a man who shares his highly conservative views.
But given the importance of Catholicism in America, we can hope that Benedict’s successor will be willing to overhaul administrative practices and attitudes that have hurt the church itself, among others.
The obvious place to start is with the hierarchical culture that let sexual and physical child abuse fester for so long that it devastated the church once it was exposed.
Too many bishops and other church leaders tolerated criminal priests, and the Vatican seemed oblivious to the problem long after it came to light.
Benedict addressed the scandal publicly only in the last few years. Though he met with victims and ordered bishops to adopt safeguards, he never acknowledged the grave institutional failure in the Vatican itself.
Ratzinger arrived at the papacy with huge ambitions. He hoped to revive Christianity in Europe, battle moral relativism and build respect for the church’s authority. But the unceasing abuse scandals left him fending off attack after attack, distracting and exhausting him.
He’s right: The job needs a stronger man. A miracle-worker would come in handy, right about now.