It was a surprise bombshell for Catholics around the world when Pope Benedict XVI announced that he is retiring. As always, the worldwide church faces unusual problems in selecting the next pope.
In modern times, there is no precedent for a pope’s resignation. It’s been 598 years since a pope has left the church while living, the last with Pope Gregory XII in 1415 during what was known as the Great Schism.
What Pope Benedict’s resignation, really a retirement, does is to create a situation where there will soon be a reigning pope, and a “pope emeritus,” you might say. Whether Pope Benedict will have any influence with the newest pope, or whether he will even want to be on close terms with him, will be watched carefully.
Having a retired pope, in one way of thinking, is what the modern world has brought about. After all, people live longer these days. Where prior popes have assumed that they would remain as the leader of their church until death, and therefore reigning at the will of God, now this step by the 85-year old Benedict puts a new light on the length of service by a pope. As Benedict has noted, he is weary of the weight of the job, not in good health, and doesn’t have the stamina to carry on. We (as a senior our self) can understand. We can feel his thinking that another person, perhaps a younger person, would best be God’s right hand in this world.
Look at the many pressures the Catholic church faces as it moves toward election of the next pope. Today there is ever-increasing pressure for diversity in high places, even in the church, though the Catholic church apparently feels no pressure to bring the white collar to women. Yet the odds of the 117 cardinals selecting someone unlike their majority are long.
Of the 117 cardinals, 53 percent of them are from Europe. Charge that off against only 24 percent of Catholics worshipers are from Europe, and you get an indication of perhaps one way the pope’s election might go.
Then, too, consider where the Catholic church is strongest today: in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are 483 million Catholics in this region, which amounts to 41 percent of all Catholics. People in these countries feel that they are rightfully in line for someone from their lands to be head of their church. But there are only 19 Latin American cardinals, which gives an indication of the steep steps it would be for a Latin cardinal to ascend to St. Peters in Rome.
Africa, too, is a growing region for the Catholic church, now home to 177 million people. Yet there are only 11 African cardinals. Again, steep odds.
Another consideration in both Latin America and Africa is that the Catholic church faces strong competition from evangelical and Pentecostal influences. If the cardinals do not select a pope with diversity from either of these areas, it could lead to a weakening Catholic church in Africa and Latin America.
The pope’s resignation, therefore, is fraught with opportunity and problems. The entire world is watching. And so is a living pope, something most unusual.