In the days since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, we've heard abundant speculation about who will be chosen to succeed him and what that choice will mean for the future of the Roman Catholic Church and its billion-plus members around the world. Will the next pope hail from Europe, where the church is dying, or from the global South, where its future lies? Will he be a reformer like John XXIII, who convened the modernizing Second Vatican Council? Or a timid traditionalist like Paul VI, who in 1968 reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control over the objections of the very theologians and scholars he'd convened to study the possibility of lifting it?
These are important questions. But they may turn out to be much less significant than the deeper question of whether the authoritarian institution of the Catholic hierarchy — from priests on up to the pope — can survive the democratic-populist forces of our technological age.
Consider the shape of Benedict's pontificate. When Joseph Ratzinger became pope in 2005, the most common assumption (made by his fans and detractors alike) was that he'd continue in his role as an enforcer of theological orthodoxy. There were visions of a highly authoritarian papacy. Instead, his pontificate has been marked by a string of gaffes, scandals, and serious public relations blunders that have significantly diminished his stature and the moral authority of the church.
A few of the lowlights:
* The pope's 2006 Regensburg lecture seemed to describe Christianity as essentially rational and Islam as essentially irrational, leading to worldwide denunciations and significantly hampering Catholic-Muslim interreligious dialogue.
* In 2009, the pope rescinded the excommunication of four members of the heretical Society of St. Pius X, one of whom (Bishop Richard Williamson) is an outspoken Holocaust denier. In response to the ensuing controversy, the Vatican stated that it was unaware of Williamson's anti-Semitic views, even though they are well documented online.
* Since 2010, the Vatican Bank has been under investigation by Italian authorities for money-laundering.
* In 2012, the pope's butler was accused of stealing classified documents (allegedly demonstrating pervasive corruption inside the Vatican) and passing them along to an Italian journalist who subsequently published them in a tell-all book titled His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI.
As recently as a decade ago, such events would have attracted little notice outside of Italy. There might have been a single article in a newspaper, and the few people who happened to read it might have been annoyed and angered. But there would have been no widespread public outcry. Today, such news is instantly communicated to the entire world, leading to a constant drumbeat of scandal and controversy.
Some defenders of the pope have suggested that the solution is for the Vatican to open a sophisticated communications office. (Along these lines, just two months ago the pope — or more likely someone on his staff — opened a Twitter account and began tweeting under the pontiff's name.)
Such efforts might help on the margins (just as having an unusually charismatic pope like John Paul II makes things easier for Rome in all kinds of ways). But better communications won't get to the root of the problem, which is that the Catholic Church is an authoritarian institution attempting to maintain itself in an increasingly global democratic culture dominated by a technologically fueled tabloid sensibility. This culture rejects all calls for deference and all claims to self-evident authority. It will gleefully publicize the slightest evidence of hypocrisy and corruption. As long as the Vatican continues to insist against all plausibility on the moral infallibility of a coterie of manifestly fallible clerics, it will remain a ripe target for criticism by freelance freethinkers.
And it's not just the Vatican. The PR nightmares (and moral outrages) of Benedict's pontificate extend far beyond Rome. There's the 2009 story of a 9-year-old who was allegedly raped by her stepfather in Brazil. The girl's mother sought out and obtained an abortion for the girl's resulting double pregnancy, which likely would have killed her. The response of the local bishop? Excommunication for the rape victim's mother and the doctors who performed the abortion. (The rapist, meanwhile, suffered no such ecclesiastical punishment.)
Then there's the continuing fallout from the pedophile-priest scandal in the United States. Just within the past few months, Archbishop John J. Myers (a member of the arch-conservative lay organization Opus Dei) appointed The Rev. Michael Fugee to be co-director of the Office of Continuing Education and Ongoing Formation of Priests in the diocese of Newark, N.J. — despite Fugee being barred from unsupervised contact with children over having confessed to groping a teenage boy. That's right: More than 10 years after the church was rocked by a sex-abuse scandal that has cost it billions of dollars and done incalculable damage to its moral standing, the archbishop of Newark not only chose to promote (rather than defrock or demote) a confessed pedophile but put him in charge of the moral formation of the next generation of priests.
The Catholic hierarchy may have gotten away with such clericalist corruption in an earlier time, when news traveled slowly and information was very hard to come by. But it will become increasingly untenable in a world of instantaneous communication in which ordinary lay people (and good old-fashioned muckraking opportunists) are empowered by technology to seek out and publicize the truth — even when, or especially when, it exposes malfeasance in a hierarchical, anti-democratic institution. Every moderately intelligent and articulate critic of the church around the globe now has access to information and the opportunity to express dismay and disgust on blogs and other websites. The nearly 2,000-year-old institution of the papacy — accustomed to moving at the pace of centuries — has no choice but to contend with these thousands of critics, many of them raising morally legitimate objections to this or that decision, questioning its wisdom, raising doubts in the minds of the faithful. It's hard to imagine an institution less suited to mounting an effective defense against the critical onslaught.
In the coming years, the Vatican will face a painful choice: Reform itself into a very different (more democratic) institution, or face a slow, painful death by a thousand digital cuts.
Damon Linker is a senior writing fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test. You can follow him on Twitter: @DamonLinker.