Catholic Church Still Sits At The Crossroads

popeThe recent news concerning the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has drawn a wide range of reactions from surprise and dismay to sheer indifference. The main reason the outgoing pope has given is that he no longer has the state of body and mind required for the gruelling work hours as Supreme Pontiff in a world “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.” Pope Benedict is to resign at the end of the month, leaving the throne of St. Peter vacant and paving the way for the first papal conclave since 2005.

Though it is certainly unusual, papal resignation is allowed under canon law, though the current pope is the first to avail of this allowance since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. Gregory reigned during a time of turmoil known as the Western Schism, when the Catholic Church was split from 1378 to 1417, resulting from the returning of the Papacy to Rome from Avignon in France. The schism threatened to tear the church asunder with two rival claimants to the papal throne in Avignon and Italy and so Gregory’s resignation helped to unite the church at the Council of Constance at which both Gregory and the Antipope John XXIII were set aside, the next Pontiff, Martin V, not elected until after Gregory’s death. Nearly two centuries before hand, in 1045, the current pope’s namesake Benedict IX was persuaded by his successor, Gregory VI, to resign for his own financial advantage. Benedict IX had held the papacy three times and was one of the youngest pontiffs in the history of the church, some sources giving his age as between 11 and 20 and was described as “feasting on immorality” and was variously accused of adultery and murders as well as the dubious honour of being the only man to have sold the papacy. His godfather and successor, Gregory VI, was reputed to be a man completely the opposite of his young godson and resigned himself the following year because his attaining of the papacy was thought to be an act of simony – it had been paid for. But it was with Pope Celestine V in 1294 that papal resignation was enshrined in canon law – issuing a decree declaring the right of any pope to abdicate; he himself exercised that right five months later citing several reasons, some not too dissimilar to Benedict XVI today, including the ‘deficiencies of his own physical strength’.

Predictably, the betting has already begun, quite literally, on who will replace the outgoing pope. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is an early favourite, followed by Cardinals Marc Ouellet of Canada and Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Cardinal Turkson is being heralded by many as the front runner, the first African pope the Catholic Church would see should he be elected, representing the inroads being made on the continent by the Church. It will be interesting to see how any new pontiff tackles the problems plaguing a church seeing its relevance dwindling rapidly in a world in which many view religion as a hindrance rather than a support. Benedict XVI’s original aim at the heart of his papacy was the re-evangelisation of Europe, the root territory of Christianity, before consistent clerical abuse scandals rocked the church across the world, combined with the pope’s own misguided pronouncements on birth control, the lifting of orders of excommunication on several bishops including a Holocaust denier and his abject failure at shaking up the administration of the Church. Perhaps the Catholic Church is coming to an inevitable end, and if so, there will be little the next pope can do about it. Moving towards modernising the Church in an attempt to renew its relevance will incur the wrath of the traditionalists whose resistance to any change to custom and ritual is legendary. But sticking to the core beliefs the Church has maintained over its two thousand years of existence is alienating the modern laity increasingly. A path down the middle in an attempt to placate both sides may be one option, but such a route is narrow, and it is much easier to fall than to stay on course.

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