Shocking news Monday morning -- the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, the first time a pontiff has stepped down in almost 600 years. The banner headline over the front of Tuesday's New York Times read "Pope Resigns, With Church At Crossroads – Scandals and a Shift Away From Europe Pose Challenges." The story from Vatican City by Rachel Donadio and Elisabetta Povoledo was also front-loaded with negatives and the problems the church faces, seen through the prism of what liberal Manhattanites (i.e. Times reporters) consider vital issues: Condoms and the ordination of women.
Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement on Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28 sets the stage for a succession battle that is likely to determine the future course of a church troubled by scandal and declining faith in its traditional strongholds around the world.
Citing advanced years and infirmity, Benedict became the first pope in six centuries to resign. Vatican officials said they hoped to have a new pope in place by Easter, while expressing shock at a decision that some said had been made as long as a year ago.
Saying he had examined his conscience “before God,” Benedict said he felt that he was not up to the challenge of guiding the world’s one billion Catholics. That task will fall to his successor, who will have to contend not only with a Roman Catholic Church marred by the sexual abuse crisis, but also with an increasingly secular Europe and the spread of Protestant evangelical movements in the United States, Latin America and Africa.
Reporters Donadio and Povoledo searched in vain for "plausible candidates" who would bring the Church in step with the modern age (i.e. changing Church doctrine).
The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocated a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who feel the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like ending celibacy for priests, or the ordination of women....Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a dogmatic theologian and a Canadian, is widely seen as a favorite of Benedict, who named him head of the Vatican’s influential Congregation for Bishops to help select bishops around the world. Critics in his native Quebec said that he was out of step with the province’s more progressive bishops, but that is not necessarily a drawback in today’s church.
At least the Times left out in its print edition the line from yesterday's online coverage, much mocked on Twitter, that "When he took office, Pope Benedict’s well-known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient”; that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He had also strongly opposed homosexuality, the ordination of female priests and stem cell research."
It's an old line anyway, dated in fact from when Benedict did take office, in the April 20, 2005 Times story announcing Benedict's appointment.
The Washington Post managed to hold off its "crisis" reporting on the church in its lead paragraph: "Citing failing strength of “mind and body,” Pope Benedict XVI stunned his closest aides and more than 1 billion Catholics by resigning on Monday, becoming the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years and ending the tenure of a formidable theologian who preached a gospel of conservative faith to a fast-changing world."
Former executive editor Bill Keller posted about Benedict's abdication on his blog Monday afternoon, and the ex-Catholic faulted the Pope for retreating "deeper into the comfort of orthodoxy" and "the chauvinism of Rome," and tried to edge unhappy Catholics out the doors of the church.
Benedict’s eight-year reign will be appraised intensively and, I expect, unkindly. He will be described as a diehard traditionalist, a reactionary in a time of revolutionary yearnings. He gave no encouragement to the nuns who sought to break through the stained-glass ceiling, to gays who wanted the church to come to terms with their humanity, to Catholics who questioned the Vatican orthodoxy on contraception, divorce, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women and, of course, abortion....
Benedict has been a polarizing pope, but he was not an outlier. On the contrary, he was the deliberate choice of a church that has, ever since the 1960’s, been retreating from the Second Vatican Counsel promise of reform and modernization, deeper into the comfort of orthodoxy. He was just what the church hierarchy wanted, though I suspect the Vatican missed his predecessor’s Polish bonhomie.
I’ve addressed before the growing alienation of American Catholics, from the vantage point of someone who feels Catholicism as part of his history, though he no longer has the faith to go with it. It was a pessimistic message. I admire Catholics who choose to stay and fight for a kinder, more inclusive church. I respect those who stay because they have found spiritual contentment in one of the local parishes that soft-pedal the chauvinism of Rome. But there is little reason to believe the Church will bend in the next generation or two. And there is no shame, it seems to me, in following your conscience out the door, especially now that there are vibrant alternative Catholic parishes – Catholic, but not Roman Catholic.