The act for which Pope Benedict XVI may be remembered most is his resignation, since it is the most potent gesture towards liberalizing Vatican traditions in over six centuries. He is the first Pope to leave voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294.
His decision to resign may be the shock needed to pull the Vatican out of its traditional ways and complacency. The modern Roman Catholic church with a flock of about 1.2 billion is surrounded by many very large competing faiths, including about 900 million other Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, a billion Hindus, about 380 million Buddhists, and 400 million Chinese who follow other traditional religions (adherent.com estimates). Another billion people are secular, agnostics, atheists or do not follow any religion.
In today’s world, where knowledge travels at the speed of light, retaining religious identity and authenticity is becoming harder by the day. This is one of the reasons for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, emerged mostly from the miniscule Salafi and Wahhabi Sunni Muslims groups native to Saudi Arabia. The Islamic terrorists have caused all of Islam to be tarred with the brush of merciless violence in the minds of most people of the other religions.
Against this backdrop, the Pope’s decision may provide impetus for the Vatican to start internal reforms and demonstrate the leadership needed to adapt to changes in the world. To increase and improve the global space for Catholics, it would have to go beyond doctrinal tussles within the Roman Catholic church and concerns about dissidents and loss of faith. It would have to reach out much more to other religions and civilizations as a friend rather than competitor.
Benedict XVI is a reputed theologian but is not known as a liberalizer. During his 8-year Papacy, he tried to restore faith and doctrine to Catholicism and resisted moves by many Roman Catholics around the world to bring the religion’s do’s and don’ts closer to modern times. For instance, he stood resolutely against abortion, homosexuality, same sex marriage and ending celibacy for priests. He supported reintroduction of Mass in Latin, traditional vestments and trappings, and opposed ordainment of women.
He has been criticized for not going far enough to punish pedophile priests or offer hands of friendship to Islam, Buddhists and Hindus. On the other hand, he did try to protect Christians of all denominations against persecution anywhere in the world.
All Popes defend the Roman Catholic religion, as is their duty. Despite the large congregations in Africa and Asia, they have acted as if their main duty is to Western civilization and its Catholics. Benedict XVI’s resignation may be the moment for the Vatican to recognize that the future of the Roman Catholic religion lies in Africa, Asia and Latin America rather than Europe and America.
In the West, faith, religious doctrine and its constraints are challenged more often than on other continents, which already contain some 42% of all Catholics. They also offer greater opportunities for conversions.
A pleasant Easter surprise from the Vatican would be election of a non-European Pope. However, the word so far from Italy is that Italians wants to repossess the Vatican. They have had enough of foreigners like Poland’s John Paul II and Germany’s Benedict XVI.
photo of Vatican City via shutterstock.com