By resigning, Pope Benedict served the church well. He has spared it another prolonged period of mounting disarray. He has "humanized" the papacy, as Joseph Komonchak and others have pointed out. He has jolted the church into allowing that something generally considered unthinkable for centuries is really not beyond doing after all. And he has set the stage for his successor to do likewise.
That is important. The Catholic Church needs shock therapy. True, among the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, millions of saints are leading lives of prayer and charity so ardent, brave, sacrificial, creative, and enduring that they bring tears to normal eyes. They are the best of us—and then there are the rest of us. Except in parts of Africa, the much-heralded growth of Catholicism is simply in line with the growth in population—or not even that. Latin American Catholics are increasingly turning to Pentecostalism or drifting away from religious practice and affiliation altogether, although not yet to the extent occurring in Europe and North America. It would be comforting to think that what might be lost in numbers is being gained in depth, but as Catholic identity, floundering in a sea of alternative visions, weakens from generation to generation, that seems unlikely.
The church needs shock treatment, and until the mini-shock of his resignation, Benedict, to the relief of many, did not seem like the man to administer it. Ratzinger, yes; Benedict, no. What shocks have come during his papacy were usually by blunder rather than intention. Evaluations of his tenure have balanced the pros and cons of his deeds according to the lights of the balancer. What is still untallied, except for his failure to unmistakably demand accountability in regard to clerical sexual abuse, is what has remained undone. Underlying conditions like the limitations, in numbers, quality, and age, of the clergy or the massively eroding credibility of church teachings on sexuality are no better than when he took office in 2005. Much of the hierarchy deludes itself with slogans in search of substance like “The New Evangelization,” or rationalizes inaction with the familiar alibi, “The church works in centuries.” In fact, history teaches that the church often suffers for centuries from its failure to act during critical passages.
Will Benedict's successor do any better? Back in 2005, observing the long painful and paralyzing decline of John Paul II, some of us felt that the next pope should immediately establish a procedure for a pope to conclude his service while still alive. Establishing such a rule for the surrender of papal power at the very outset of a papacy would forestall suspicions of behind-the-scenes manipulation in the case of an ad hoc resignation like Benedict's. (It is remarkable that so few such speculations have arisen, at least to date, in Benedict's case.)
This time the white smoke will presumably greet us almost on the brink of Holy Week, so first things first. The new pope should focus his own and the world's attention on the Paschal Mystery. From entry into Jerusalem through Last Supper, passion, death, and Resurrection, from palms to holy oils, consecrated bread and wine, shrouded statues, venerated cross, new fire, and baptismal water, let the new pontiff simply be vested in the sacred rites.
Between Easter and Pentecost he can deliver the necessary shock therapy. To begin, Pope Novus, as we might call him, should declare that his predecessor's wisdom in resigning reveals a permanent insight into the realities of a modern papacy. Henceforth, popes will either serve a term of twelve years or resign at the age of eighty-two, the choice depending on each pope's reading of the church's needs at the moment. Papal interventions to determine the church's choice of a successor, something Benedict has adjured but another pope might not, will be formally prohibited.
Because the beginning of a papacy is the opportune time to deal with the delicate question of such transitions, Pope Novus should move to make future conclaves more representative. He might create a new position of “cardinal electors”; their only function would be to vote in a conclave. Cardinal electors would constitute one third of those voting. They would include the heads of the ten largest religious orders. The rest would be chosen biannually—and their names kept in petto—by the presidents of the bishops conferences of each continent. The number of cardinal electors would be proportionate to each continent's Catholic population. At least half of them would be women. Heads of Vatican offices, although eminently eligible for election to the papacy, would not participate in the conclave unless they had become cardinals while serving as ordinaries.
The specifics are arguable, but the general idea is clear: continuity but not cloning.
Reforming the tenure and election of popes would signal that the church is open to change, even though it only affects the future. That needs to be complemented with a dramatic gesture of immediate consequence. One idea would be a papal establishment of a massive Catholic Pietà Fund to be devoted to the health, education, and safety of women around the world. The goal would be to raise $1.2 billion, or a dollar for each of the world’s Catholics. While pledging to maintain the church's role as a steward of artistic heritage, Pope Novus might initiate this fund by offering to sell one or several of the Vatican's signature artworks (the Pietà itself?). Perhaps Catholics or others could outbid buyers to keep these objects in Rome. In any case, contributions to the Pietà Fund would become a feature of papal journeys and international events like World Youth Day. Would this diminish Peter’s Pence? On the contrary, it would probably swell it. And by placing administration of the fund in the hands of Catholic women, Pope Novus would also signal openness to reexamining the role of women in the church. Had John Paul II taken a dramatic initiative like this early in his papacy, the church's voice on several major issues would have won a much greater hearing.
Two other initiatives could be reserved for Pentecost, May 19. On that day, the pope would invite bishops, theologians, and knowledgeable laity to submit their thoughts on two topics. One would be very practical: how to make the world synods of bishops an effective institution. The other would be very fundamental: aggiornamento and ressourcement on the church’s understanding of sexuality.
Pope Novus would pledge to act within several years to reform the synods. He would be wise to warn that the discussion of sexuality would take time and no one should expect hasty conclusions about specific norms.
Is all this fantasizing? Obviously. Is it fantastic? These initiatives are moderately disruptive insofar as they admit of change in the church, hardly a heretical notion. They are only slightly more controversial in encouraging broader participation in the shaping of that change. They are otherwise open-ended—and about as unthinkable as a pope resigning.
Pope Novus, whoever he turns out to be, will preach many words between his election and Pentecost. They will evoke familiar images and stir familiar sentiments. But unless they are accompanied by a few vivid, imaginative, and substantial initiatives, they will wash over the listening world and the listening church, with at most an arresting phrase or two lodged in our hearts. We will stumble on. The church does not live by popes alone. The opportunity to build on Pope Benedict's startling gift will have been squandered.
About the Author
Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.