So, Pope Benedict XVI is resigning. The last Pope to do so was Gregory XII in 1415, but his resignation was more of an abdication than a voluntary retirement. The Church was in the midst of the Western Schism. There were three claimants to the papacy and, in the end, Gregory XII resigned under pressure and made possible the election of Martin V two years later.
One must travel back nearly 750 years to find the last time that a pope voluntarily resigned. Pope Celestine V resigned his post in 1294, after filling the See of Peter for a mere five months. Interestingly, one of his most notable contributions during his tenure was declaring that any pope had the right to resign or retire. He then utilized that very declaration to leave his position and return to his pre-papacy life of solitude.
Now, for the second time in a decade, the College of Cardinals will convene to vote on the next man to step into apostolic succession. Beginning in March, the world will turn its collective eye to Saint Peter’s Square and watch until the smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel changes from dark to white, signaling the election of the next pope.
So, who will the Church choose for her next leader and why, if you are not Catholic, should you care? It is my hope that Benedict XVI’s successor come from among her majority population: the non-white, non-European, developing world. It is time that the leader of the largest Christian body in the world come from a place where the faith is growing, not declining.
The challenge faced by the Catholic church in this regard is one faced by many other Christian structures and denominations. Centers of growth and vibrancy have shifted, but the aging power holders have not. The temptation is to refill leadership vacancies with candidates much like their predecessors. This, however, will only further alienate the leadership from its base. The alternative is to allow the rise of leadership from outside conventional structures. This is a risky proposition, but it is likely the only way that many of these structures and denominations will survive the next decade.
Why should you care, if you aren’t Catholic? The Catholic church is like the proverbial tanker ship: it takes a long time and a lot of effort to alter its course. As the most visible representation of Christianity to non-Christians, the election of a non-white, non-European pope will signal to the rest of the world that Christians aren’t as averse to change as they may seem. The ramifications of such an election won’t be realized for decades, but it will be a step in the right direction, much like the 2012 election of Fred Luter, Jr., the first African-American President of the Southern Baptist Convention, was a step in the right direction. Neither the Catholic church nor the Southern Baptist Convention is likely to become a bastion of progressive theology, but each has an opportunity to re-imagine what it means to be “the church” in the 21st century.
So, what are your thoughts on the opportunities presented by the papal resignation? What ought the characteristics of the next pope be? If you are not Catholic, do you even care?