Throughout his nearly eight-year papacy, and for 25 years before that as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer, Pope Benedict XVI steered the Catholic Church away from the liberalizing reforms symbolized by the Vatican II conference of 1962. His strict interpretation of Catholic teachings led to a proportionally greater emphasis on the church’s opposition to birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Meanwhile, the Vatican asserted tighter authority over church affairs, a reversal of the decentralizing trends of an earlier era.
These shifts in focus sometimes put the Vatican at odds with followers in the West; Benedict, in turn, expressed concern over the loss of faith among many Catholics in Western Europe and the United States. The Vatican’s efforts to rein in certain groups of nuns and other independent-minded religious orders left some Western Catholics feeling alienated. But when called upon to deal with clergy-abuse scandals in the United States and many European countries, Benedict went significantly further than his predecessors in acknowledging the Vatican’s failure to properly handle such allegations. His papacy has been a time of doctrinal clarity amid increasing challenges within the diverse global community of Catholics.
For all these reasons, Benedict’s announcement that he will be retiring at the end of the month provides the church with an opportunity for reflection and renewal. The 85-year-old pontiff deserves great credit for recognizing his weakening health and choosing to step down rather than consign the Vatican to a period of stasis similar to that which occurred as his predecessor, John Paul II, battled Parkinson’s disease. Some Vatican observers feel that popes, like other monarchs, diminish their mystique by resigning. But Benedict, in citing his declining energy, was putting the church’s needs ahead of his own: The complex duties of the papacy require a vigorous, hands-on leader.
The cardinals who will choose Benedict’s successor were hand-picked by him or his close friend John Paul, so it would be unrealistic to expect a major change in direction stemming from the choice of a new pope. But even if the cardinals select a pope who shares Benedict’s vision of a more doctrinally pure church, the Vatican should be willing at least to hear out and answer Western demands for more autonomy . Greater flexibility from Rome would allow the Western church to carry its mission in new directions, for example by finding new ways for women to play more significant roles in church affairs.
For the remainder of the month, Catholics will be experiencing an event unknown for six centuries — the opportunity to say goodbye to a pope before he dies. Benedict deserves the respect and gratitude befitting an intellectual leader and transformative figure in Vatican history. In this country, his strict rulings appealed to some conservatives but left other followers wondering if the Vatican really listened to their concerns. His successor’s first job should be to seek a way to bridge those divisions.