I was surprised this morning to see Twitter abuzz (follow me @DyingSparrows if you like) with news of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (or as I affectionately call him, B-16). While I knew it was a big deal (I can only remember two popes, JP 2 was elected when I was 2 years old), I was not fully aware of the historic significance of this event. From what I gather, the last time a pope resigned (abdicated?) was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII stepped down in the midst of a controversy over who had a rightful claim to Peter’s See. To my educated readers, perhaps you know of others? (I am too lazy to poke around…) This makes Pope Benedict’s decision even more historic. There is no scandal, there are no rival claimants. Benedict simply realized that he was getting too old for the job. Perhaps he did not want to repeat the slow public decline (and commensurate hand wringing by the faithful) of his predecessor.
I wonder if his rare (if not unprecedented) move does not mark the beginning of a new era in the papacy. Advances in health care are leading to longer lives, globalization and the shift of the Church southward is requiring more travel, media and the internet chronicle every move. Benedict, as an 85 year old man, simply could not endure the rigors that the position required. The situation will be no different, and perhaps even more demanding, for future popes. My suggestion: the 21st century has created an environment that has led to a historic change in papal reigns and ecclesial governance. (Tenuous proposition 1. Feel free to let me know if you think this idea is misguided. Just do so nicely.)
There are other 21st century realities that the Church might want to consider adapting to. Probably lots. I mention here two:
- Women in leadership. Women occupy positions of leadership in every sector of life. It is true that they do not receive the pay that they ought to and they are woefully underrepresented in the highest echelons of power (can we start to fix that in 2016, Hillary?). Yet, women have fought hard and gained vital ground. If is frightfully disconcerting that the Roman Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) refuse to follow this trend. Unfortunately for women, the Bible and the Tradition reflect the culture of their time, maybe the Church today should better reflect the culture of its time?
- Weapons and militarization. The Church historically played a key role in the state. As such, “Just War” theories and God-given rights to bear arms made some sense. The state’s job is to protect its interests, and church, as a function of the state (or is it vice-versa?) had some obligation to think about self-defense, or in other cases, blatant offense. I read online the other day a defense of drone strikes as moral from a Christian perspective. I got in trouble on Facebook for criticizing a new law in Arkansas that allows people to carry concealed weapons IN CHURCH. Could it be that because religion is (rightfully) no longer intertwined in state affairs that Christianity can now acknowledge that there really is no theological ground for violence against one another? Can we leave the messy work of social order to the state (and assume a prophetic role of critiquing unjust violence)?
There are other social issues that could be brought in — sexuality and women’s reproductive health come to mind immediately. The fact is we live in a new age. Pope Benedict’s decision to step down is perhaps evidence of a changing landscape for religion. I am sure that there are ways that this (still germinating) idea could be nuanced or corrected. Please share your wisdom!