It was a solemn leave-taking in Benedict’s last meeting as pontiff with the College of Cardinals, subdued, almost anticlimactic after the emotional encounter in Piazza San Pietro Wednesday. That it was unprecedented, really, can be seen in his solemn promise of “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor. Our experience of papal loyalty has rather been to their apostolic predecessors.
His final tweet as #pontifex: "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives." The 140-character mini-sermons were notable most of all for their following on Twitter, 1,605,112, at least in English on Thursday. And do not forget that it is an audience less likely to read a local diocesan newspaper.
And so talk must turn to the one real choice ahead, who will be that successor.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl told Catholic News Service he thought tools like Twitter might make the work less onerous, particularly if a new pope is an older man: "I believe it's eminently doable, because today with electronic media, with the facility to speak not only to the whole world but to individuals around the world, I think we're just seeing a whole shift in how this Petrine ministry is going to be exercised," he said. "It may not have to be by getting on a plane and going somewhere. It may very well be that electronically you can be every bit as present."
In an opinion piece for CNN, the British commentator Timothy Stanley, an Oxford historian, suggests that in that choice the cardinals and their choice must rebrand the church, “don't change the content, just the packaging.”
“The Catholic Church needs a pope who will communicate timeless messages in a new way. A good start would be reforming the machinery of the church, known as the Curia. The press office needs a total overhaul (incredibly, it still closes for a siesta at lunch), and the church needs to drop its heavy reliance upon the Italian language (when Benedict visited Poland, he spoke in Italian rather than the more widely used English or German).” It has been done before, and recently, continues Stanley. “The experience of the early years of John Paul II's pontificate proves that energy and charisma can revitalize the church without surrendering entirely to modern thinking.”
A onetime collaborator of Papa Ratzinger offered his thoughts on the direction to be taken. Father Hans Kueng, one of the young theologians who were periti, advisers, to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, writes on the op-ed page of The New York Times that this transition is like the Arab spring, though the Vatican is less like Tunisia or Egypt than Saudi Arabia; however, tradition for the House of Saud is only 200 years old, compared to 2,000 for the Holy See.
“There’s no way to ignore the church’s desperate needs,” Kueng writes. “There is a catastrophic shortage of priests, in Europe and in Latin America and Africa. Huge numbers of people have left the church or gone into ‘internal emigration,’ especially in the industrialized countries. There has been an unmistakable loss of respect for bishops and priests, alienation, particularly on the part of younger women, and a failure to integrate young people into the church.” What is needed is a pope who no longer forces bishops to toe “a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity.”
But, Kueng warns, “if the next conclave were to elect a pope who goes down the same old road, the church will never experience a new spring, but fall into a new ice age and run the danger of shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect.”
But the right, too, has an agenda for the conclave, and while generally appreciative of Benedict’s work, some of them fault him for being too kindly, even too timid in driving the unorthodox out of the temple. These are the small tent Catholics, offended by the notion that those who dissent in any way should find a place in the church. Even in Boston, where Cardinal Sean O’Malley might inspire hope that he could be considered among the candidates for the next pope, there are some who see lack of discipline and obedience. Read with skepticism the blog run by what appear to be one or more disaffected former archdiocesan employees, but this is an example of the worst of their fears: “Many priests habitually lie about almost every part of their lives. The mendacity is then excused with vague incantations about ‘mental reservation’ and ‘internal forum,’ and a vicious cycle is established: Unchastity leads to mendacity, and mendacity leads to more unchastity. It should surprise no one that in this poisoned environment prayer ceases, faith collapses, and every form of sinful self-indulgence finds a home. The result is men in the pastoral office who no longer seek to follow the Lord Jesus in the Way of the Cross.” The solution is to be found in a new archbishop, these critics say. “For true reform to take place, the next archbishop of Boston cannot be a chancery bureaucrat, an office manager, or a dialogue facilitator who understands his task as the mediation of internal disputes between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Catholics; he must be a passionately effective evangelist because he is first a thoroughly converted disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Writing a few days ago for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, Michael Brendan Daugherty expresses the right-wing dissatisfaction with what he construes as the weakness of Benedict’s papacy: “He has always believed in the Vatican II concept of ‘collegiality,’ which assumes that other cardinals and bishops have authority and even some autonomy from the pope. This conviction meant that Benedict was never going to aggressively ‘clean house,’ felling malefactors with thunderbolts from Peter's chair. Most of his personnel changes have been accomplished through attrition and the normal process of appointment. And yet, the work seems only half-finished. The disgraced ogre of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, (as of now) retains his vote in the next conclave.” The piece originally appeared in the online magazine Slate; Daugherty is identified as national correspondent for The American Conservative.
In The Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottom faults both the resignation (as opening the papacy to possible future manipulation, forced resignation) and the Ratzinger papacy: “If proper governance of the church -- doing the hard administrative work needed to sail that ship of the fisherman, St. Peter -- were all that is required of a pope, then Benedict should have resigned long ago. His aging has brought little new; he has been, all in all, a terrible executive of the Vatican. Not in San Celestino’s league, of course, but as bad as a pope has been for 200 years.”
Michael Potemra, in The National Review Online, agrees in part “that the pontificate of Benedict XVI was a failure in some very significant ways, including some of the ones [Bottom] mentions. But I view the matter from a rather different perspective: I think Ratzinger is not a Pope who failed and who should be faulted for that, but rather a man who was not cut out for the demands of the papacy, but accepted the job only because he thought it would be sinful to reject what appeared to be a calling from God.”
And, yet, the world and Catholics left, right, and middle are waiting for a new pope, expecting that he will be worth watching, even listening to. David J. O’Brien, retired professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross, brings perspective In a piece written for the Telegram and Gazette in Worcester, Mass.: “Despite widespread reservations even among Catholics about this exaltation of the papal office, Pope Benedict has been able to draw on the remarkable emergence of popes in the last half century as the world's best known and most respected religious leader.” He cites John XXIII’s teaching in the letter Pacem in Terris that “love embraces the whole human family, not just Christians,” John Paul II’s call at Hiroshima for a new international order, as a moral imperative, a sacred duty, and Benedict’s great teaching documents on love, hope, and solidarity. That all of them got a hearing suggests that the moral teaching found space in the hears of many. “It's at least possible that yearning for that kind of unity of the human family lies underneath our newfound fascination with popes,” O’Brien writes. “If so, it may not be a bad thing if we are all now, in some odd way, ‘papists.’ ”
With Benedict’s helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo Thursday, the sede vacante has in fact begun, and the Vatican seal for the next days and weeks bears not the tiara but the umbrella of the interregnum. We will watch the weather and the whithermen. More to come.