A Fleeting Moment in History
Aria N. Bendix
Historically speaking, the resignation of the Pope seems a noteworthy moment in time. A prominent global figure in the religious (and previously the political) sphere, the Pope has long been instrumental in the shaping of society. For Catholics in particular, he is responsible for the central dogma by which they are expected to live their daily lives.
Therefore, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his February 28 resignation from the church (the first willing resignation in six centuries), the news sent shockwaves through the religious community, if not the global community at large. Today we await the imminent election of a papal successor, which theoretically means an opportunity for policy reform, as well as a chance to reignite a waning enthusiasm for Catholicism in nations worldwide.
The sad truth of the matter is, however, that these changes are unlikely to transpire, and even those that do will be of a relatively little magnitude. While there is the possibility for small policy changes such as allowing divorced Catholics to receive communion, or occasionally permitting the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, the candidates considered will likely echo their predecessor’s tendency toward extreme conservativism.
What is more, the reelection of a European Pope will not offer the diversity that may appeal to Catholics in developing nations. While Cardinals Peter Turkson of Ghana and Odilo Scherer of Brazil are strong contenders and would generate much-needed enthusiasm for Catholicism in African and Latin American nations, there is still a significant likelihood that the new Pope will hail from Europe once again. After all, two of the most probable candidates, Archbishop Angelo Scola and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, are Italian.
By continuing on this same trajectory, then, Pope Benedict XVI’s succession and the upcoming election offer little in terms of historical merit, especially considering the general tendency of modern-day Catholics to disregard papal doctrine. According to studies originally published in the National Catholic Reporter and later cited in The New York Times, over half of American Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage, and other predominantly Catholic nations such as Argentina, Spain, and Portugal have even legalized the practice. In addition, on a more general scale, the church has seen an increase in the willingness of individuals to formulate their own moral judgments, irrespective of official Vatican teachings.
Nationwide and worldwide, therefore, Catholics have begun to develop a new identity separate from that of the Vatican. As the level of progressivity for modern-day Catholics continues to burgeon, one must call thereby into question the relevancy that a new Pope will have for members of the religious community. While the Pope does oversee the church’s mission of charity, and a new Pope may help with issues such as revamping the church’s image to bypass current associations with sexual assault, the Pope’s status as end-all arbiter of right and wrong has largely dissipated for today’s Catholics. As such, the upcoming papal election portends to be more prescribed than groundbreaking.
Perhaps, however, there is a possibility for change, a possibility to align the beliefs of the church and its constituents once more, but this would require a transformation on behalf of the Vatican. Members of the Catholic community have already made it clear that they are not afraid to be progressive simply because it conflicts with the doctrines emanating from Rome.
In this way, the historical significance of an event such as Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is largely contingent on its sociopolitical impact. If Catholics continue to ignore the Pope’s teachings, then whatever doctrines are instituted by the newly elected Pope will have little influence on the ensuing religious beliefs of his “followers,” for they have already formulated their own.
Thinking back to the last papal succession in history, the importance of this sociopolitical impact becomes increasingly clear. During this time, Pope Gregory XII ultimately resigned in order to ensure that Martin V would be his successor. This election resultantly ended the Western Schism, a period of religious turmoil in which two men claimed to be the Pope, generating a divide among the church and its citizens. The succession, then, gained historical merit due to the changes it ignited in the church and in society at large.
The fact that this modern papal succession is the first in six centuries, therefore, does not necessarily qualify it as a moment of great historical significance. If the newly elected Pope, however, were to publicly endorse the usage of birth control or recognize the practice of same-sex marriage, then that would be one for the books.
Aria N. Bendix ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Quincy House.