Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:47 AM
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.
(Pope Benedict XVI, BBC, February 11, 2013)
This, in part, is the papal announcement that shocked the world this morning. Here, for example, is how no less a person than the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, reacted during an interview on the NBC TODAY show:
I’m as startled as the rest of you and as anxious to find out exactly what’s going on.
The reason for this shock, of course, is that this is the first time in almost 600 years (since 1415) a pope has abdicated. What’s more, the world witnessed his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, defying his decaying body (and mind) to hold on until his last breath. Which is why Catholics may be forgiven their astonishment, if not disappointment, that (although 85) this relatively healthy pope is “giving up.”
Nonetheless, let me hasten to clarify that I do not think this announcement was prompted by any of the public (pedophile and other) scandals that have plagued the church in recent years, or by any personal failing that has fatally compromised the pope’s moral authority. For if harboring a pedophile priest was not sufficient to disqualify him from being elected pope in the first place, I can’t imagine any scandal or failing that would compel him to abdicate.
The Pope, in his position as bishop of diocese of Munich, harbored a known pedophile priest, who continued his predatory sexual abuse of little boys under the Pope’s pastoral supervision. This, of course, is exactly what the Pope condemned American bishops for doing a few years ago.
(“Pope Accused of Harboring Pedophile Priest,” The iPINIONS Journal, May 16, 2010)
Instead, I think this is nothing more than the sensible, responsible, and admirable decision of a man who never bought into the fiction of papal infallibility as much as his predecessors did.
As it happened, within minutes of Pope Benedict’s announcement, a well-orchestrated campaign seemed already in full swing to ensure that his successor hails from either Africa or South America. Which makes sense of course; not least because these are the two continents where the church is not only experiencing the most growth, but also retaining the most relevance.
Indeed, the cardinals choosing another White European as pope in these circumstances would be, well, as cardinal a political sin as the Republicans nominating a Tea Partier for president in 2016.
Mind you, my regard for the political sense or sensibility of cardinals and Republicans alike is such that it would not surprise me at all if they both commit this sin. Not least in the case of the cardinals because Vatican operatives will surely point out that, precisely because Africans and Latinos are the fastest growing demographics in the church, there clearly is no need to pander to them. By contrast, given the attrition rate among North Americans and West Europeans, Vatican operatives might consider it more politically shrewd to elect a pope from one of these two regions.
And trust me, despite all of the religious rhetoric about cardinals being guided by the Holy Spirit, the election of a pope is every bit as political as the election of a president. It’s just that all of the campaigning for pope is done behind closed doors … in what is called a conclave.
What’s more, notwithstanding its notorious inaccuracies, Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons does not do justice to the naked political machinations involved in this process. Indeed, it speaks volumes that the pope’s own butler, Paolo Gabriele, was so dispirited by the administrative incompetence, backstabbing, and graft within the curia that he leaked the Vatican papers last year for the same principled reason Daniel Elsberg leaked the Pentagon papers in 1971: to expose corrupt, immoral, and illegal practices within the institution he loved, hoping this would lead to reforms. Alas, the Vatican papers also revealed that neither Benedict nor his predecessor did much of anything to reform those practices.
All the same, for what it’s worth, I believe the “Holy Spirit” will move the cardinals to elect a Latino before they elect a Black. And in doing so, that a Black beat a Latino to the presidency of the United Sates will figure prominently (i.e., politically). But, alas, the following will figure even more so:
African Catholics are growing in number and are almost as faithful to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as Pope John Paul II was himself. Therefore, the selection of an African Cardinal as the next Pope would seem divinely inspired…
Most informed commentators on Vatican politics agree that Cardinal Arinze is qualified in every respect … except that he’s Black. And, I fear that even the more catholic Catholics of the world are not ready to kiss the hand (and feet) of a Black man as their Holy Father.
(“Black Pope = Black Smoke?” The iPINIONS Journal, April 6, 2005)
Still, here’s to hearing – before Easter Sunday on March 31 – those immortal words, habemus papam!
* This commentary was originally published yesterday, Monday, at 1:30 pm