Pope first to announce resignation in almost 600 years
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 01:02
Citing “an advanced age” and flagging strength, Pope Benedict XVI announced he would resign his papacy last Monday, making him the first pope to do so in nearly six centuries.
“This is a really exciting time for the Church,” said Cheryl Goldthwaite, advisor of the Catholic Student Organization on campus. “Because it raises awareness of Catholicism for the whole world.”
Pope Benedict XVI’s announced resignation, scheduled to officially take effect Feb. 28, came as a shock to the billion-plus Catholics around the world, many of whom are now grappling with the pressing question, “what comes next?”
Looking to the church’s history to glean insight on the future, it seems its traditions have buoyed Catholicism above other dwindling faiths and church attendance.
“The liturgy and the mass is at the heart of the (Catholic) tradition, theologically and communally,” said Michele Dillon, Ph.D., a Catholic scholar and professor of sociology at UNH. “People still value Catholic teaching.”
Dillon further explained that regarding the Church’s directive, Catholic social tradition is on a historic precipice: gay rights have become “their last hold on secular culture … they’ve already lost on contraception … lost on divorce … and have been fighting on abortion without really any change.”
Though the Pope does not create the doctrine of the Church, he does serve as the primary articulator of Catholicism at that time, which, as Dillon suggests, can mean a number of things.
“Catholicism is multifaceted,” Dillon said. “There are many different strands, and the pope can pick and choose which to emphasize and which not to emphasize … of course, this choice is very powerful.”
Pope Benedict XVI chose to emphasize Orthodox interpretations of Catholicism, a position derivative of his background as both a scholar and theologian. He once urged priests who advocated against priestly celibacy to desist and practice a “radicalism of obedience” instead.
Regarding the impact of Benedict’s XVI’s focus on centralizing the Catholic Church around ardent parishioners of Orthodox faith, Goldthwaite said she believed it was not so much the personal persuasion of a pope that made him a valuable leader, but his “spiritual leadership” in general. Goldthwaite continued to emphasize her “hope and expectation” that the new pope will express equal spiritual leadership to both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
“He always knows what is best for the church,” said Tim Roemer, treasurer of the UNH CSO, when asked about Benedict’s tenure and his future predecessor.
What is the future leader of the world’s most powerful religion up against?
Since 2005 – when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as the predecessor to John Paul II’s famed papacy – the Catholic Church has been subject to a rapidly shifting social climate. Civil rights issues around the world have moved out of the periphery and into the focus of political and theological debates and subsequently divided the Catholic Church among social issues on gay rights, women’s rights, divorce, contraception, and abortion.
“Rather than just getting on the right side of public opinion … at least not emphasis these things,” Dillon said about what the next pope can do to mitigate further fracturing in the Catholic Church. “Instead, emphasize the economic issues, inequality, helping the poor.”
Pope Benedict’s XVI’s tepid response to social issues can in part, Dillon conceded, be the product of groupthink within the church’s male-dominated hierarchy.
“It will take some brave cardinal who will stand up and say we really have to address this,” Dillon said about social issues, citing Pope Benedict XVI’s unprecedented decision to resign as proof that such steps are possible.
Here on campus, CSO has been following the story closely, but as its president, Colleen O’Leary, pointed out, “We focus on the students and the Church’s teachings as a whole … [Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation] has no direct impact, and we are all praying for him.”
Other students on campus see the pope’s resignation as an opportunity to liberalize an antiquated doctrine.
“The Church has the chance to get with the times,” Sophomore Doug Cote said. “You see all these social movements – take gay rights, for one – and they’re all going this way, and the church is still where it’s always been.”
“Popes are kind of like presidents, you know,” sophomore Conor Madison said. “People expect things to be different, but they mostly just stay the same.”
Doubt, uncertainty and potential are the words populating Catholic vernacular around the world, as one billion strong await the billow of white smoke above the Sistine Chapel. Assuaging some Pre-pope-elective anxiety, Dillon reminds everyone that Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is “not opening the flood gates; its opening a refreshing well” of ideas, faith and prayer.