A few thoughts on Benedict and the next pope

The current frontrunners (l to r): Cardinal Turkson of Ghana, Cardinal Ouellet of Canada, Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria

It’s fun to speculate about who will be the next pope. But normally there’s a bit of a taboo about that because you are talking about the current pope dying. Not this time. By resigning — the first pope to do so since 1415 — Pope Benedict is taking the naughtiness out of that game. He’s also giving the cardinals an opportunity to plan their trips to the Vatican by setting a date certain for his resignation.

None of this is a surprise, though the exact timing was not known. Pope Benedict spent years as Pope John Paul II’s closest advisor before and throughout the previous pontiff’s slow deterioration. He saw the harm that can be done by an incapacitated leader, and has said he would resign if and when he felt he could not fulfill his duties. It is a gift to the Church and a final unselfish act for this pope, who genuinely never wanted the job and can now look forward to at least some of the quiet retirement he had been looking forward to eight years ago.

Pope Benedict’s term has been a mixture of openings, as this theologian pope has tossed aside some backwards attitudes of the Church, and closings, as his traditionalist side has tried to shut the door on moves towards a more tolerant and progressive structure. Most on the left (for lack of a better term) gave him little hearing because he was already well-known to them as “God’s rottweiler” for his aggressiveness while working under Pope John Paul II in shutting down thinking and practices deemed unacceptable.

On the openings side of the ledger, Pope Benedict revived the idea that faith should be engaged with art. In both music and fine art, Benedict has encouraged dialogue, saying that by refusing to engage the modern world, the church was ceding it to secularists. The theologian in Pope Benedict couldn’t resist publicly denouncing the silly idea of limbo — never an official teaching but once widely accepted in the Church.

Most significantly, though, Pope Benedict confounded his enemies on the left by beginning his papacy with an encyclical titled “God is Love” and following it with other thoughtful letters, including one affirming unions and government social programs that totally freaked out conservative American Catholics, and two lovely gentle books about the life of Jesus.

The shift was in emphasis, though, not in beliefs. While as shepherd to billions, Benedict saw his main charge as being an inspirer and encourager of the faithful, he also took steps to bring back some traditional ways and to shut down debate on troublesome issues. Female priests? Forget it, closed issue, he said, which it is anything but, both among theologians and the public. Mass in Latin with the priest’s back to the congregation, which had never been banned at Vatican II, just kind of discouraged in the name of openness? Awesome. Openly gay priests, where some nuanced progress could have easily been made? No dice. And of course recently he went out of his way to denounce any idea of gay unions, ever, period.

He also presided over the ongoing scolding of American nuns for focusing too much on helping the poor and not enough on promoting the pro-life agenda, and on the denouncing of some liberal theological books and their authors — though some of the cause of these things falls on the American bishops, who are far to the right of their flock, and sometimes to the right of the pope, or at least more partisan then is he.

In sum, Pope Benedict followed a similar track in Catholic religious thought and politics as did the neoconservatives in American social thought and politics. Both were part of the liberalizing reform movements of the 60s — then-Bishop Ratzinger had been a key figure in Vatican II — and both felt that the movements overstepped, and in turning against them, retrenched into a traditionalism and hostility towards the aftermath that ended up painting them as enemies of the reform movements they had helped foster.

Despite being surrounded with friends, both Catholic and not, who have nothing good to say about Pope Benedict, and despite being on the other side from him on virtually every major question facing the Church today, I’ve never been able to hate him. Part of it is his quiet academic demeanor, which I relate to both personally and in authority figures I admire. Part of it is the central role one of his early Vatican II era books, Introduction to Christianity, played in my own faith journey. I still think of it often. I was baptized under him, and was in the 20th row when he visited New York. It’s also just not my style to be hostile toward people with whom I disagree. So let us say goodbye to the good and the bad aspects of Pope Benedict’s term, and look forward.

What next?

A new pope could take the first steps back towards the center. Except for one thing. A pope is elected by those cardinals who are under 80. Since between them Popes John Paul II and Benedict have served for 35 years, every single cardinal was appointed by them. So it’s very unlikely we’ll get a significantly more liberal pope. But just as with presidents’ appointments of Supreme Court justices, sometimes unexpected things can happen. Pope John Paul II surprised those who elected him by taking the church far to the right on social issues (which wouldn’t have been a surprise if they’d better understood Polish Catholicism). Similarly, the current cardinals might misread a candidate’s core.

But by definition the unexpected rarely happens. The next pope likely will be as conservative as the last two, though probably not with the focus on going backwards that Benedict has exhibited. There’s a strong possibility he will be African. British bookie Paddy Power currently has Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze at first and third. On the one hand, this would be a wonderful small-c catholic move, an acknowledgment of the increasing numbers and role of the African church. It would also make the third non-Italian pope in a row. On the other hand, the African church membership is much more socially conservative than Western members and neither of these candidates is likely to move the church away from its recent hard-line social stances. The other front runner, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of rural Quebec — who is a part of the same traditionally-leaning neo-con-like faction as Pope Benedict — is if anything more conservative. [NOTE: Paddy Power's rankings have already changed, with Ouellet now leading and Arinze falling to 5th place with two Italians moving up ahead of him.]

Or course, Paddy Power had Cardinal Ratzinger in fourth place with 6 to 1 odds eight years ago before he was elected pope. (Its frontrunner then was Nigeria’s Arinze.)

The likelihood that the next pope will be as conservative as the last two and extend this current period another decade or two is particularly troubling for liberal Catholics, and for all who would like to see the church liberalize. Through several generations, they have waited to see the church make any significant gestures of moderation, to be met each time instead with moves even further to the right, with moves of reconciliation towards the more extreme right-wing factions and additional rebuffs of liberal thinkers and ideas.

Of course with any change of the guard can come the unexpected. We will soon see. More to come.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Captain DG

    A very nice article. I am closer to Benedict than to you on many things but it is nice to read that you give the rottweiler his due.

  • alisonlopez1


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  • pagansister

    If yet another conservative pope is elected, it might serve to push out more younger Catholics, who I think are already doing their thing when it comes to birth control, living together outside of marriage etc. and many have no problem with gay marriage. In the States many of those leaving are being replaced by the Latino population/Hispanic population. The US Church would be in more trouble membership wise without the immigrant populations.

    • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

      “Truth is not determined by a majority vote,” Pope Benedict XVI.
      But you miss half of the reality, Pagansister. For every young Catholic I know “doing their thing,” I know another who astounds their parents by actually doing the “Catholic thing,” for real, taking it far more seriously than their parents ever did. The demographics of the Catholic Church in the US almost perfectly mirror the demographics of the US, and they have for a century or so. Or haven’t you heard, that the US itself “would be in more trouble membership wise without the immigrant populations.” That might be because everybody is busy “doing their thing” when it comes to things like birth control and living together outside of marriage, instead of, well, you know, actually having children and stuff. I mean, it’s not like population growth is important to sustain things like economic growth.

      • pagansister

        Perhaps, but I mentioned what I did due to my experience teaching for 10 years in a Catholic elementary school for 10 years, in a New England state. the PE teacher had 1 child with her boyfriend and married him later—no secret to anyone. A couple of the 8th grade graduates who went to a Catholic high school, came back a couple of years later—to show off their child—unmarried. So, observation. Many of the teachers I taught with had no more than 2 children—and I’m sure they weren’t using NFP. Again, just my observations. Of course, there are those that follow all the rules. I agree that the US is what it is due to the immigrant populations—if you think about it, the citizens of this country are all immigrants except the Native Americans.

        • pagansister

          Sorry for the repetition of the “10 years”! Oh, the PE teacher was Catholic, so not “following” the rules, but was hired anyhow.

      • http://www.philfoxrose.com Phil Fox Rose

        >For every young Catholic I know “doing their thing,” I know another who astounds their parents by actually doing the “Catholic thing,” for real, taking it far more seriously than their parents ever did.

        Exactly, it’s one or the other. Some young adults are more zealous and conservative than their parents. Many more are simply drifting away because they don’t see the church’s relevance to their lives or because it’s political stands are offensive to them. The church is failing to keep the middle. Mainline Protestant denominations are having the same problem. It’s not just the Catholic Church, though it gives many young adults more to struggle with on the political side. I agree with pagansister that if they next pope is more conservative, it could escalate that issue even more.

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Well, I am pleased to note two things, Phil.
    (1) You are very generous in your attitude toward someone with whom you disagree;
    (2) You are in no danger of viewing a religion in its own terms, rather than in terms of the American political scene.
    The virtue of the first reality certainly goes some distance in compensating for the confusion engendered within the second. Best of luck figuring out Christianity one day.

    • http://www.philfoxrose.com Phil Fox Rose

      Ryan, if you’re suggesting that there’s no connection between the paths taken in American culture, European culture and the Catholic Church, I have to disagree. Of course each has its own factors, but the explosion of progressive optimism expressed by the 60s movement in the US, the United Nations, Vatican II and many other things, all happened in parallel, followed by a conservative backlash, which included the elections of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, with some of the thinkers leading this backlash being, as I said, former leaders of the progressive causes. By making this observation, I’m not saying that’s the whole story, or that a divine hand was not guiding aspects of one or the other. But I don’t really see how you can deny there’s any connection.

      Oh, and your own generous attitude in points 1 and 2 went some distance in compensating for your obnoxious closing line.

  • R Plavo

    What about the hapless liturgical translation foisted upon the English speaking world on Benedict’s watch? If it doesn’t matter to people, it’s probably because they just don’t understand it, and so don’t care.

  • http://quotablejesus.blogspot.com Dave Montrose

    You are right to point out that surprises happen. Paul VI, who was appointed cardinal by John XXIII, caused a lot of surprises with his outreach to the Old Guard.

  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    I am new here and have found this article brilliant. It is fair, balanced and charitable. Most Catholic articles seem to come from extremes.

    I agree fully with the point that the Church is failing to keep the middle.
    One little quibble Paddy Power is Irish, not British.

  • AJ

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by liberalize. You seem to talk about his Holiness and the Holy Church as if their main purpose in being is politics: left, right, middle. Mr. Haber expressed it very well. I also encourage you – take out the Catechism of the Catholic Church or online, whichever is best. Recenter yourself on the mission of the Church and understand that first; then, I pray, you will have a better view than the political one.

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