Will future popes have fixed tenure to keep papacy relevant?

Last Updated 15 February 2013, 16:50 IST

Within minutes of Pope Benedict’s resignation at the age of 85, the global community that is in the know of the working of the papacy remained stunned with disbelief and bewilderment. In the tiny state of Vatican, it must have surprised many.

Taken without consulting anyone except his own conscience and certainly without the sort of cunning political calculation, his was a decision planned with the meticulousness of a very methodical mind. 

This week is the start of Lent, culminating in Holy Week and the most demanding schedule in the pope’s year. The conclave to elect the new pope will be held during the weeks of penance, focusing the assembled cardinals’ minds on the need to come up with a new pope in time for Easter. 

Reactions from various parts of the world poured in no time, some with gratitude, others with pain and some others with shock. No Pope had resigned in the last 700 years of the papacy. Pope John Paul II, the predecessor of the present pope in spite of his severe ailments had carried on. Within and outside the church, there were voices of alarm at the resignation.

“This is disconcerting, he is leaving his flock,” said Alessandra Mussolini, a parliamentarian who is granddaughter of Italy’s wartime dictator. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Secretary to the late Pope John Paul, said the former pope had stayed on despite failing health for the last decade of his life as he believed “you cannot come down from the cross.” By his resignation, Pope Benedict has failed to endorse the stand of the Vatican that the papacy is an office till death and this decision of the pope will likely have consequences for the future of the papacy.

The question that would continue to be debated is whether the pope resigned only due to his ill health and age. One is not sure. Elected to the papacy on April 19, 2005, Benedict is known as the pope of the intellect unlike his predecessor who combined the rational with the affective. “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith…both strength of mind and body are necessary”  said the pope in his resignation, strength which he held he no longer possesses. Given his introvert nature, there must have been things that must have deeply affected him. In his travels abroad making about four foreign trips a year, he never managed to draw the oceanic crowds of his predecessor.

Deeply entangled

The child abuse scandals hounded most of his papacy. His own butler responsible for dressing him and bringing him meals was found to be the source of leaked documents alleging corruption in the Vatican’s business dealings. The church is deeply entangled with the national politics of countries as diverse as Africa, Vietnam, Latin America. Within the church the pope would have his problems. It is no more a homogenous but a plural church with larger numbers of faithful people from across the countries. Doctrinally the church leadership had faced problems in harmonising liberation theology with liberal theology of the west with the emerging African and Asian theologies. Conservatives have cheered him for trying to reaffirm traditional Catholic identity. His critics have accused him of turning back the clock on reforms by nearly half a century and hurting dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other Christians. Did all these affect the pope in making up his mind to quit? One is not sure.

While popes have not retired in the past, will the conclave that will meet to elect the new pope fix an age for retirement of the popes in the future? Given the fact that humans cannot function beyond a particular age with all their senses in place and the office of the papacy needs people beyond average talents, is it too much to ask for the fixation of a specific age for retirement of the popes of the future? In fact, it would be in the interest of the church if the supreme leader resigns after a fixed age. All said and done, it is a position of both political and moral leadership and given the changing times that leadership needs persons of alertness, universalism and relevance. 

The election of a new pope will be a challenging one simply because the church remains plural with plenty of challenges ahead. Besides the challenge of secularism, atheism, agnosticism, neo-liberalism, the church has to address issues of modernity and post-modernity. There are unlikely to be many smart cardinals who could meet the requirements of the office. The conclave may have to at least look for a person who is willing to listen to smart people in the Church. Liberals have already begun calling for a pope that would be more open to reform while those from Asian and African countries desire a pope who is sensitive to their aspirations. What kind of a person the cardinals would choose to a universal office? One will have to wait and see.

(Published 15 February 2013, 16:40 IST)

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