Pope Benedict XVI’s Resignation: A Unique Opportunity to Tackle Years of Decline

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The Catholic Church is one of the world’s most dated institutions and has played a seminal role in shaping the world we live in. It is the largest sect of the world’s largest religion and has some 1.2 billion adherents worldwide [1]. Despite all of this, it has fallen from grace in recent years as society has become more secular, and its reputation has been damaged following constant allegations of sexual abuse. There seems to be an ever growing disconnect between the Vatican and the modern world, which suggests the Catholic Church is showing its age. Nonetheless, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on 11th February, the modern world quickly became fascinated by the bizarre turn of events – a potent reminder of the weight the Catholic Church still carries.

Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, is the first pope for centuries to leave office with breath still in his body. Not since 1294 has a pope voluntarily left the Holy See [2]. The German cited ailing health as the basis for his decision. Speaking in Latin he said, “after having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry” [3]. Given that his predecessor, John Paul II, battled Parkinson’s disease for four years before dying as the leader of the Catholic Church, a resignation that appears to be based merely on old age has been a cause for concern for many Catholics. However, with his resignation Pope Benedict XVI has created a rare opportunity for the Catholic Church to reassess itself.

Pope Benedict is well known for his conservatism and his papacy has been characterised by traditionalist themes. Hence, his sudden resignation, that was both dramatic and unexpected, has come as something of a shock. But, some of Pope Benedict’s other surprises have been all too easily forgotten. For example, he has modernised the Catholic Church by extending its reach to television and Twitter. Despite his rigid beliefs, Pope Benedict has done more to revolutionise the Catholic Church than many before him. He has now created an opening from which the Catholic Church could get the face-lift and fresh slate it so badly needs.

In most walks of life, a 60-year-old would be retired and reaching the end of their professional career. However, a 60-year-old pope would be extremely young and could bring a youthful vibrance that would help re-energise the Catholic Church. One commentator notes that a new pope will inherit many of the same controversies that blighted Benedict’s papacy, from clerical sex abuse to fears over inadequate money laundering controls [4]. This is certainly true, but the unnerving reality is that these issues are but minor ones in the grand scheme of things for the Catholic Church.

The most fundamental problem faced by the Vatican is that of its own decline. As each day passes, it grows increasingly out of touch with the society in which is operates. Throughout the world, dictatorships are condemned and overturned and yet the Catholic Church is ruled by the decree of a single man. The institution also remains inherently elitist, with status largely determined by age and gender amongst other factors. All in all, the strict views of the Catholic Church are incompatible with modern life; as a result, its preachings are falling on deaf ears.

The Catholic Church needs updating. By offering his resignation, Pope Benedict has already set this process into motion. If the Vatican welcomes this opportunity for reform and modernisation, it could prove game changing. The fact that the Catholic Church, Christianity and religion are all in decline is not one that can be easily escaped. A new pope will be faced will a simple choice: manage this decline or tackle it head on.

[1] David Gardner (2013) ‘The Pope Leaves a Tainted Legacy’, Financial Times [online], 11 February, available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/749b753a-7442-11e2-a27c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2LijGorV2 [accessed 23 February 2013]

[2] The Financial Times (2013) ‘Papal Precedent’, Financial Times [online], 11 February, available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/55b190c8-745b-11e2-a27c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2LijGorV2 [accessed 23 February 2013]

[3] The Economist (2013) ‘See You Later’, The Economist [online], 16February, available at: http://www.economist.com/news/international/21571864-papal-resignation-ecclesiastical-earthquake-how-church-interprets-it-will [accessed 23 February 2013]

[4] Lizzy Davis and John Hooper (2013) ‘Pope Benedict XVI’s Shock Resignation Breaks 600-year Taboo’, The Guardian [online], 11 February, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/11/pope-benedict-shock-resignation-taboo?INTCMP=SRCH [accessed 23 February 2013]