Pope Benedict’s resignation has been planned for some time – Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, knew about it before Christmas – but it is still a stunning shock to the outside world. No pope has willingly resigned since Pope Celestine V in 1294. Pope John Paul II hung on for years – he was dying of Parkinson’s disease – while the machinery of the Vatican rotted about him.
During the decrepitude of John Paul II, Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was his right-hand man. It may be that his experience then planted in him a wish to leave office while he was still able to discharge his duties.
Although his accession was greeted with horror by the liberals in the church, he spent almost all his time in office struggling ineffectually with the problems inherited from John Paul II. His most remarkable innovation was his decision to resign as he felt his powers failing. That ought to be a precedent that the church will make use of again.
In Benedict’s resignation statement can be seen an implied rebuke to his predecessor, who argued that clinging to life and power for as long as possible was itself a form of witness to Christ’s suffering. Benedict, however, says: “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world … strength of both mind and body are necessary.”
Benedict leaves his successor nearly 2 billion followers – but few of them take any notice of Catholic teaching. His church has been battered in the west by child abuse scandals and a shortage of priests, but it is still growing fast in the south. It is difficult to overestimate the speed and size of the shift in global balance. In the west the priesthood is ageing and shrinking: the median age in the US has risen from 34 in 1970 to 64 last year, while their numbers have diminished: 10% of the entire US population were lapsed Catholics in 2008, which would make them the third-largest denomination in the country. The structure and self-belief of Irish Catholicism have both imploded, and almost all the island’s seminaries have closed. In this country, more than 40% of the priesthood is over 65. In Europe as a whole, the numbers in the priesthood diminished by nearly 1,000 last year.
In the Middle East, its historic homeland, Christians are now facing almost unprecedented persecution. Only in Asia is the priesthood really thriving, so that the most common names in the Australian priesthood now are Vietnamese, not Irish.
In the US, Germany and Australia, there is fierce and bitter struggle within both clergy and some laity between liberals and conservatives. The liberals believe in a form of democracy in the church, and that it should be mostly concerned with poverty and exploitation. The conservatives believe in autocracy – if they run it – and see the church’s agenda topped by abortion.
Polls and observation suggest that the laity are indifferent to both parties. There is no measurable difference in this country between Catholics and non-religious in their attitudes to abortion, although Catholics are broadly leftwing in their voting patterns. Their birth rates everywhere show the futility of the church’s struggle against contraception.
For Benedict, western Europe had been largely lost to Christianity and was once more a mission field that would have to be reconverted. But it’s hard to see any signs of either planning or success in this task, despite the unexpected triumph of his visit to Britain in 2010. He did not manage to damp down the rebellions against compulsory celibacy in the priesthood, which have shaken the church in German-speaking countries. In fact, by his personal support of special arrangements for former Anglican clergy, he may have weakened the tradition of clerical celibacy.
The long-term planning means that the succession should go as smoothly as possible, but it is always difficult to predict the outcome of the conclave in which cardinals elect a pope. As the last two have not been Italian, it may be that the succession will move towards Africa and away from Europe altogether. An African would mean a greater focus on the relationships with Islam, perhaps at the expense of the relations with the rest of Christianity.
Andrew Brown is the editor of Cif belief.