Charles A. Coulombe, author of the new book The Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, explains the reasons behind His Holiness’s sudden retirement and who not to expect as his replacement.
Zola: Do you think Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to renounce the Papacy was truly his own, or was he pressured into it?
Charles A. Coulombe: It was indeed his own decision, but based, I think, upon his perceptions of what was happening. As I explain in my book, he has launched an ambitious programme of reform, which resistance on the part of many bishops and others has to a great degree stymied; I think that he felt this reform is essential to the life of the Church, and that he renounced the Papacy at a time when he was confident that he would be succeeded by someone who will have the energy and drive needed to push it through.
Zola: Even when he was first selected to replace John Paul II, many observers said Benedict was chosen mainly for his advanced age—that in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals and the growing division between “liberal” members of the Church and those pushing for greater orthodoxy, no Cardinal wanted a young Pope who might oversee the Church for decades. Do you believe that played into Ratzinger stepping down?
CC: Only in the sense given above. It may well be that some of the Cardinals felt that way back in 2005, as some apparently did in the conclave of 1958. If so, as with that earlier election—which gave us John XXIII—then they were mistaken, and elected a Pope who has put the Church on a new path.
Zola: Again, the question of forward-leaning Cardinals who believe the Church can grow only if it accepts the changing times (re: women’s reproductive rights, groups of nuns who advocate a much more lenient view of Catholic dogma) versus those who think the way to go is to become ever more stringent in pressing the old fashioned values. The College of Cardinals is now debating who will be the new Pope. Which side do you think holds more sway in this debate?
CC: This is a fascinating question, as it brings up the whole question of perspective.
The Church is stagnant in Western Europe and North America (areas which, demographically-speaking, are dying out in general) and these dying zones are precisely the areas from which come the cries for “women’s reproductive rights” and the “groups of nuns.” (The latter, incidentally, are inevitably members of similarly dying orders—the only orders of nuns that seem to attract recruits these days are those who hew a more orthodox line.) For an institution which must think in terms of centuries—and even if questions of “immutable” dogma were not involved—it would make little sense to tie one’s future to the views of a declining, one might almost say failed, portion of the Church.
From that perspective, it is not a question of being “forward thinking” or holding on to “old fashioned values,” but of surviving into the future (to say nothing of remaining true to oneself). Certainly the Cardinals (and anyone else knowledgeable about modern dating norms in Europe and America!) who have read Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” will see that his predictions in 1968 about the probable future if artificial contraception became generally accepted, shall find Church teaching on this point prophetic rather than retrograde—even if it makes uncomfortable reading.
So, to answer your question, I suspect that the number of “forward-leaning Cardinals” in the sense in which you mean it is very small—especially since most of the Cardinals who will vote in the conclave were appointed by Benedict, and the remainder are remnants of the conclave that elected him. The major divisions will be about where reform (in the sense that Benedict meant it) needs to be applied first—the world-wide network of dioceses, or the Roman Curia that oversees them—and, of course, who the individual best-suited to carry out such a project may be.
Zola: Ratzinger seems to have failed on many levels. He said he knew nothing about the rape of children by priests, but almost nobody believes him. He also could not reconcile the Vatican with its Catholic critics in the States on subjects such as female priests and allowing priests to marry. How much of a factor did these failures play in the end of his Papacy?
Almost nobody unfamiliar with how the Church actually works—on both the local and international level—and who derive their knowledge from the media believes him. Those who are familiar—and I myself, incidentally, am one who tried to call attention to these crimes as early as the 1980s—certainly do [believe him]. Of course, very few among the influential in Europe and America believe in his religion anyway.
It is interesting that while the majority of those who call themselves Catholics in the States may disagree with him, the majority of those who regularly attend Mass and support the Church financially do [agree with him]. In any case, as we both know, the Church in the US is stagnant—so why would he be concerned about his critics here? Just as interesting is that we have in this country a body that reflects all that such “Catholic critics” say they want the Church to conform to: the Episcopal Church. And it is dying rapidly. Some might excuse Benedict (or any other Catholic, for that matter) for not wanting his Church to adopt a proved blueprint for failure.
He certainly was stymied in a lot of his reform efforts—thanks in great part to older bishops and clergy and the media. But as I say, I believe his move was an attempt to forward his work of reform.
Zola: Catholicism is rapidly growing in South America and Africa, while it has stagnated in the U.S. and Europe. What are the chances that the next Pope will be a South American or an African?
CC: Not that great, though not impossible. But I would not be surprised at all if it happens in the next conclave or the one following. As you say, the US and Europe are going downhill. I for one would welcome it.
Zola: The Catholic Church is deeply troubled right now, but billions of people still have faith in it—a faith with which they try to build their whole lives. What do the devoted deserve from the next Pope?
CC: A Pope who will see Benedict’s reform programme through, and position the Church more effectively to carry out the command the first Pope received from Christ—to “make disciples of all nations.” And who will be strong enough to face the inevitable enmity this will stir up inside and outside the Church.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.