The announcement yesterday of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was a surprise that may also reflect the demands that the Roman Catholic Church faces in the modern world.
The decision to exit his office is an extraordinary gesture from the Pope, and an unprecedented act in the papacy. While he is in full possession of his faculties, Benedict XVI decided that leading the Church requires more energy than what the 85 year old can provide.
His retirement could close a long, conservative chapter in the history of the church. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected prefect of the influential Congregation of Doctrine and Faith four years after John Paul II was appointed. They both redirected the church, moving it away from the most progressive factions that emerged from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. Benedict XVI continued the traditionalist path of his predecessor.
However, Ratzinger also will be remembered because of the scandal involving thousands of cases of sexual abuse by priests of minors. From his position at the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith, he knew about the reports for years, and was one of those responsible at the top for the negligent and complicit attitude of the church toward these horrendous crimes.
As Benedict XVI, he addressed this subject openly. He met with the victims, praying and crying with them, in addition to harshly condemning the members of the clergy involved. Nevertheless, it was too little, too late for betraying the trust placed on a moral leader and the pain of lives destroyed at a tender age.
With the selecton of his successor, there is an opportunity to heal and to also transform animosity into inclusion. There are urgent social issues and ongoing debates to address around celibacy, priesthood for women and communion for divorcees, among others.
The College of Cardinals will select the next Pope and the course the church will follow for years. We hope it is a road to openness.