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Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Catholic world this week by announcing that he will step down at the end of the month, setting up a struggle for succession that will determine the future course for a church plagued by scandal and shrinking congregations. As a traditionalist, Benedict delivered his resignation, effective Feb. 28, in Latin to a gathering of cardinals in Vatican City. The pontiff said he lacked the “strength of mind and body” to carry out his ministry in a world “subject to so many changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.” Benedict’s decision was almost unprecedented—Celestine V, the last pope to abdicate voluntarily, quit in 1294—and surprised the Vatican. It was “like a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky,” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
Those closest to the pope say he decided to resign in April, following an exhausting official trip to Mexico and Cuba. “He has gotten tired faster and faster,” said Benedict’s brother, Father Georg Ratzinger. A conclave to choose his successor is expected to meet in mid-March. Leading candidates for the papacy include conservative Cardinals Angelo Scola of Milan and Marc Ouellet of Canada. Some Vatican watchers, however, think the time is right for a pope from the church’s new strongholds in Africa or Latin America, and have pointed to Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson as a possible pontiff.
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What the editorials said
Pope Benedict has been “a passionate shepherd,” said Newsday. In his eight-year papacy, he has embraced the church’s mission to help the poor and urged world leaders to tackle climate change. It’s to his credit that he has chosen to resign at age 85 “rather than remain in power while his health—and perhaps his service to the church he has ministered so ably—declines.”
Benedict would have made a fine medieval pope, said The Washington Post, but he was ill suited to the 21st century. While the rest of the world was advancing rights for gays and women, he was denouncing “homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and unacceptable” and rejecting the idea of female priests as heresy. And as Catholicism’s demographic center shifted to the developing world, Benedict focused on reviving the faith in Europe. “He failed.” Secularism advanced on the Continent, while congregations in Latin America and Africa lost ground to evangelical churches.
What the columnists said
If the modern world didn’t like Benedict, said Timothy Stanley in CNN.com,“then that’s the world’s problem.” As a true Catholic, he made it his mission to return the church to its core values. That’s why he revived the Latin Mass and bravely defended the church’s timeless insight that sex is a holy expression of love and possible procreation in the context of marriage, but destructive when used as an instrument of selfish pleasure. Benedict’s legacy is the victory of “theological principle over fashionable compromise.”
There was nothing principled about his handling of clerical sex abuse, said James Carroll in The Boston Globe. In May 2001, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a confidential letter to every Catholic bishop ordering that accusations of child rape by priests be handled “in the most secretive way.” Anyone who went to the press or the authorities, he warned, could be excommunicated. The church can now make amends for past sins, said Christopher Moraff in PhiladelphiaMagazine.com. The conclave could elevate a cardinal from Latin America—where 42 percent of Catholics live—or Africa, bringing “a fresh perspective” to an office long dominated by old white Europeans. “But wherever the pope comes from, he will need to embrace the realities of the modern world.”
There’s little chance of that, said Bill Keller in The New York Times. The church has a low tolerance for dissent, and will happily shed dissatisfied liberal believers in order to preserve its conservative core. It’s possible that the conclave may pick a successor who is less austere and more politically adept. But 67 of the 118 cardinal electors were appointed by Benedict himself. “This is not a bastion of enlightenment. Don’t expect a Vatican Spring.”