Many Catholics are temped to spiritualize Benedicts decision, but doing so avoids grappling with the unique features of the modern papacy. Catholicism has had a long, and often fraught, relationship with secular political power. The Catholic Church is, of course, heir of the Roman Empire, which emerged centuries after the turbulentbut long successfulmarriage of ecclesial and state power held by the emperors Constantine and Theodosius (between 313 and 380). More recently, the Catholic Church showed its spiritual, cultural, and political might when John Paul IIwith the help of Ronald Reaganbroke down the Berlin Wall and put an end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe.Those examples suggest a strong dynamic of attraction-repulsion between Catholicism and imperial power. But how has the global church survived as an institution, given a social and political context thats seen great upheaval over the past century? The age of colonial empires gave way to financial empires. A world dominated by Western powers is yielding to one increasingly oriented toward the South and East. The era of Catholicism as a the state church in Europe has given way to the contemporary world of religious pluralism and freedomand decreased Catholic practice. This is the long-term historical context of the papacy Benedict XVI will resign: one that became more monarchical in the nineteenth century (as a reaction against the democratization of modern political systems), and that is now more centralized than ever beforedespite Vatican II.
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