No wonder Benedict XVI’s announcement that he was going to resign shocked the world.
The last time anyone was taken aback by a Pope’s resignation was that of Celestine V nearly 800 years ago. This is usually a job for life and now a man who has always seemed more on the side of tradition than change has rejected convention. Or, at least, he’s managed to revive one that most people had forgotten about.
When a papacy ends in death, it inevitably follows that there are kind words before criticisms, including those of a more acid type. And there will be kind words about Benedict, too; chiefly admiring ones about the power of his intellect and his formidable writing skills.
This is a Pope of the mind, or of the library. More traditional Catholics will bid not only a fond farewell to him but an anxious one, too. This Pope was their champion, reviving the Old Rite of Mass, and they had hoped he would last for many years. But more progressive Catholics will not so regret his passing; they have fretted that the Catholic Church was turning away from the contemporary world, driven instead by nostalgia.
The Catholic Church is not at ease with itself these days. The scandal of child abuse has affected us all, from the victims, to the perpetrators, to those of us caught in the middle, sometimes knowing victims, even knowing the accused. But it has been the cover-ups by bishops and cardinals that has most dismayed us, even more than the abuse. Then there was the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal, revealing the Vatican as a place of plots and counterplots, and people jostling for power: an organisation in dire need of reorganisation.
Benedict failed to reform the Vatican, preferring instead to write his papal documents and his books on Jesus of Nazareth. That made him a powerful communicator and his capacity to reach out to people was evident, too, in his travels, including his visit to Britain in 2010. But practical matters, such as administration, failed to interest him.
When Benedict was chosen in 2005, the view taken by his cardinal electors was that the Catholic Church needed to focus on Europe, once its powerhouse and now the centre of its struggle against secularism. That struggle has undoubtedly intensified during this pontificate. It may well be that the cardinals who elect Benedict’s successor will turn their attention to the parts of the world where Catholicism is strong: Africa, perhaps, or Latin America. Such an appointment will confirm that the Church can make the running when it comes to race.
But it won’t make it any more 21st century in its approach to sex and gender.
Catherine Pepinster is the editor of The Tablet, the Catholic weekly