What a surprise that Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, would be the one to strike a blow for modernity. After all, during his predecessor John PauI II’s reign, Ratzinger was the enforcer, the one keeping the lines clear and the boundaries firm on doctrinal truth.
And now, he does this thoroughly modern, up-to-date thing: He resigns. From the papacy. Is that even possible? We thought death was the only way out of that job.
In stepping down, Benedict XVI has done a nearly unthinkable, one might say “individualistic” thing. He wasn’t sure he was up to the rigors of leading the Roman Catholic Church into the foreseeable future. So Benedict XVI introduced the very traditional church to a very modern idea: personal choice.
“I chose not to be pope any longer,” said Benedict in effect, deciding that the papacy isn’t a lifelong commitment. It’s a job. Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement. But the point remains: Benedict believes that the man and the position are distinguishable. And Benedict has made his choice.
From time immemorial the posture of the Catholic Church has been that some things are chosen for us, not by us. The faithful in the pews have been handed their faith. They can take it or leave it, but they don’t get to decide what to believe in and what to leave behind. They don’t get to pick and choose. Yet, that’s sort of what Benedict did. He turned being pope into a matter of choice.
In doing so, he may have pushed Roman Catholicism into the modern era more forcefully than anyone or anything since Vatican II, Catholicism’s official (and still controversial) embrace of modernity some 50 years ago. By changing the papacy from destiny to decision, Benedict has sounded a peculiarly contemporary note: this is my choice.
This action creates a welter of new challenges for his church, challenges long faced by other churches and denominations: namely, what do you do with a former leader, in this case, an ex-pope?
What does an ex-pope, for example, wear? Papal white, cardinal red, priestly black, an aloha shirt? Does an ex-pontiff have a say in the choice of his successor? Can he drop by the Vatican on occasion for an audience? Does he get a security detail? Use of the Popemobile?
It’s not unlike ex-Presidents. What do you do with George I, George II, Bill and Jimmy? To what are they invited, or not invited? Do they have a role in foreign affairs? Party conventions?
Retired clergy often present a huge challenge in the world and life of churches. Not a few pastorates have suffered through awkward moments or even ended badly owing to a retured pastor who didn’t know when to mind his or her own (newly-limited) business.
Awkwardness aside, Benedict’s resignation is yet another sign, in yet another sector, that leadership is a tough and taxing gig these days. Rumor has it that Benedict had grown tired of the contentious Vatican bureaucracy. If so, he wouldn’t be the first religious (or secular) leader undone by internal politics and endless meetings.
Truth is: The Catholic Church today is not your grandmother’s Catholic Church. Priests are in short supply, and under fire for child abuse. Nuns are in the doghouse. Bishops battle presidents over healthcare regulations. And everywhere religion is a much more competitive enterprise than it was in the old days when there were three boxes on the form (Protestant, Catholic, Jew) and most everyone (at least in the U.S.) was “one of the above.”
Today’s world offers many more spiritual options, including the ever more popular “none of the above.” Increasingly, people are making up their own minds about what they believe and how they will practice those beliefs.
Just like Benedict.
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