Michael Valpy: A tired Pope, a divided church

Pope Benedict's resignation couldn't have been better scripted, Michael Valpy writes, leading as it does into Lent with its 40 days of penitential reflection. The verdict on his legacy will be much struggled over.
Cardinals talk among themselves at a special ecclesiastical council at the Vatican Monday, when Pope Benedict announced his decision to resign at the end of the month. (Osservatore Romano / Reuters)

Benedict XVI's announcement couldn't have been better scripted. Two days before Lent, Christianity's 40-day season of penitential reflection, the Pope announced he's quitting his job, with a new pope promised by Easter, the day of resurrection.

Lovely imagery for the Roman Catholic Church, which Benedict has ruled for almost eight years.

It is also an institution he leaves largely polarized between its progressive and ultra-conservative factions, as well as roiled over abusive priests, liturgy, gender and sexuality, and unsure of what binds its very different hemispheric halves.

The leaders of the church, with its more than one billion adherents, will need reflection — and some will say penitential reflection — to determine where it goes next.

The first pope to resign in 600 years, Benedict leaves the helm of an institution that he has successfully, after a fashion, held together, not as a charismatic leader like his predecessor, John Paul II, but as a kind of wise elder and teacher.

The verdict on his legacy will be struggled over.

The great goals he announced at the outset of his papacy — a determination to ignite a new Christian spirituality in Europe (he took the name Benedict after Benedict of Nursia, patron saint of Europe) and halt the spread of secularism and moral relativism in a materialist world — have gone unachieved.

His forays into ecumenism, to say the least, have been seen as clumsy.

In his early days as Pope, he gave a lecture at Germany's University of Regensburg in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor on the Prophet Mohammed, and then had to apologize for his comments as Muslims took offence.

He approved the restoration of the traditional Tridentine Mass but inadvertently left in a prayer that was anti-Semitic. He lifted an excommunication order on a bishop who was revealed to be a Holocaust denier.

He bruised 40 years of Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue by creating a canonical structure to admit conservative Anglican groups in conflict with the doctrines of their church — an act that the leader of the Anglican Communion wasn't told about in advance.

Within the church, he has refused a larger role to women and been unbending in his rejection of same-sex unions, abortion and contraception.

And, of course, much of his papacy has been overshadowed by the priestly sex-abuse scandal that has shattered the church in Ireland — once home to perhaps the most devout flock in Europe — and driven hundreds of thousands from churches in the U.S.

A polarized church

However, this catalogue of his actions gives a distorted view of all that he's brought to his church and why he's done certain things that he's done.

By consensus, Benedict is an outstanding theologian whose three encyclicals have significantly advanced the church's social justice thinking.

He has also condemned the global capitalist system, called for regulatory agencies on global competition and written compellingly on peace.

Unlike his predecessor John-Paul II, Benedict has been modest and limited with his writings, preferring to have the church focus on his office rather than himself.

And Catholic scholars such as Dennis Doyle at Augensburg University in Germany have argued that the ideological labels that have been stuck on Benedict are in ways a misrepresentation of what he has tried to accomplish in a polarized church.

In the name of church continuity, he has tried — as did his predecessor — to put the brakes on the liberalism unleashed by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

But he has been seen as reaching out to the church's right rather than to the left, says Doyle, because the Catholic right has essentially formed its own church through organizations such as the Society of St. Pius X, while the left is either still in the church (however grumpily) or has left it altogether.

What next?

As for the sex scandal, the U.S. National Catholic Reporter's John Allen, one of the leading journalistic commentators on the church, has said that, contrary to allegations that Benedict failed to root sex abusers out of the priesthood, he has been "driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess."

But he's been hampered, says Doyle, by a church culture that protects its own and leaves local bishops — not the Vatican — in charge of what goes on in their backyards.

As for a successor?

The growth of the church is in the developing world, not Europe or North America.

And after the death of John Paul II a lot of the bet money was on one of the bright charismatic cardinals from Latin America. But it didn't happen.

The South American bishops were divided on whom they favoured, and the church as a whole was reluctant to turn the papacy immediately over to a fresh, charismatic leader, and so it went to the already elderly, steady and predictable Benedict.

The next pope, suggests Mark McGowan, a leading church scholar at University of Toronto's St. Michael's College, will have to be much more of a personal model for the church, closer to the people and, unlike the professorial Benedict, will likely require the deep pastoral experience of a priest who knows the field.

It's early yet in the 40-day run-up to Easter, but possibly already out of the starting gate are Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Archbishop Polycarp Pengo of Tanzania, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy (there hasn't been an Italian for a long time) and maybe Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

There is not a liberal in the lot. But maybe there is a bold man among them.