Like most people, I was surprised by the pope’s decision to leave his post to spend more time with his family. It was so unexpected that one immediately suspected that there was more to the story and the rumor mills have kicked into high gear.
Looked at one way, that is an unreasonable suspicion. After all, the Roman Catholic church can be considered a massive transnational business that is partly legitimate and partly an organized crime syndicate. Running such an enterprise requires energy and drive and it is not unreasonable for an 85-year old man who has had health issues (he reportedly has had a pacemaker for years and had hinted that he was not in the best of health) to feel that he is not up to the task and may step down
But on the other hand, the fact that previous popes have continued to the end, even when they were very frail (like the current pope’s predecessor) and the church did not collapse suggests that the church is a well-oiled system that pretty much runs itself and requires the pope mainly as a figurehead who provides doctrinal guidance and boosts the morale of the followers. As long as he can wave to them and give the occasional homily, the flock seems satisfied.
Another reason for suspicion is that this pope is one who believes strongly in tradition, resisting change on all fronts and even going so far as to return to old forms of the mass. So why would he break one of its longest traditions? After all, no pope has resigned in 600 years, the last one to do so was in 1415 for political reasons in an attempt to heal a schism in the church with more than one pope claiming legitimacy. We have to go back even further to pope Celestine V’s abdication in 1294 to find an example of a pope who stepped down from the post without that kind of institutional crisis. But in Celestine’s case, having an ex-pope around resulted n all manner of intrigues which may be why such resignations were discouraged in the future
Another factor to consider is that Ratzi is an extremely ambitious man who campaigned to get the job when his predecessor died. Such people love to wield power, enjoy the perks of office, and do not want to give those up. They tend to die with their boots on.
So why would such a person quit? One reason may be that he simply got tired of dealing with one horrific scandal after another of abuse by priests and cover-ups by the church and there are rumors that more may be revealed soon, perhaps with more direct links to his involvement. It may also be that he saw that on all the major battles he was waging (contraception, abortion, homosexuality, nuns, male priesthood, priestly celibacy) he was losing ground and could see the writing on the wall. After all, countries like France and the UK are on the path to legalizing same-sex marriage this year.
I do not expect much of the new pope. After all, the college of cardinals who will elect him consists of 55% who were appointed by the current pope and 45% appointed by his predecessor and were among those who elected Ratzi. So ideologically the people who will vote will be very close in outlook to him. On the other hand, many of the cardinals must know that the church is hurting from all the scandals and is losing the war on many social issues and losing the public relations battle as well, so may well decide to overlook their desire for doctrinaire orthodoxy and take this opportunity to choose someone who can more gracefully ease the church into greater conformity with modern times.
So who might the new pope be? I have no idea but the church must find someone who has no skeletons in his closet on any of the issues that have rocked the church. I have no idea how good the vetting process is to check the backgrounds of candidates to the post but I suspect that it is not that great. If they want my advice, the Vatican will hire the people that US political parties use to dig deep into the backgrounds of presidential candidates, cabinet officers, and Supreme Court justices, people who look unsparingly into every corner to see what is hidden there, and require candidates to be brutally honest about their lives. Of course, cardinals are used to being treated like gods and will not be pleased to have their entire lives put under the microscope by grubby political operatives and thus the Vatican may resist taking my advice. If so, they shouldn’t come crying to me if because of their lack of proper vetting, their choice blows up in their faces later, like Sarah Palin.
I think that because the US has been particularly hard hit by the scandals, the next pope is unlikely to be one of the American cardinals because of the fear that he will be found to be tainted in some way. But it could still be an American. Apparently any Catholic male can be eligible to be pope and there is one person who is even more Catholic than the pope and has already received a lot of scrutiny. I refer of course to Rick Santorum. He hasn’t a hope in hell of getting elected president of the US but his chances are slightly better at becoming pope. So throw your hat in the ring, little Ricky!
Meanwhile, on The Today Show, Samantha Bee reports on why the pope resigned
(This clip was aired on February 11, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)