The most telling tweet I read today was from Alastair Campbell. It said “Anyone who thinks religion not relevant to modern life (writes a pro-faith atheist) just look at how Pope announcement is dominating all”. And he was right. When the news of Pope Benedict’s planned retirement broke, Twitter had tweet after tweet after tweet on the subject. I’ve never seen it that one-topic.
So. Am I glad or sad he’s going? I could say ‘sad’, in that I believe he’s a sincere and holy man, and a man of considerable intellect. But my main emotion is one of gladness. Despite his quiet charm (which floored most of Britain that time he visited them) and despite the great charisma of Pope John Paul II, their terms as Pope were not good for the Catholic Church. In the early 1960s, that extraordinary man Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council to, as he put it, open the windows of the Church and allow the fresh air of renewal to invigorate it. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI did all they could to close those windows. Dissent, even discussion was forbidden; good and thoughtful people were not allowed even to discuss such burning issues as married priests or the ordination of women. I don’t for a moment believe that either of those steps would remedy all the ills of the Catholic Church, but to block discussion and real involvement by gifted people was misguided and counter-productive.
So will I feel bad as Pope Benedict rides off into the sunset? Not really. He’s 85 years old. In any other profession to retire at that age would be seen as long overdue. I have no doubt that Benedict did good things in his term of office - among them addressing the issue of child abuse - but he didn’t do the kind of things that would bring back to the Catholic Church people (particularly young people) who have abandoned it, nor did he encourage structures that would have allowed the Church at grass-roots level to be the people of God rather than the parish priest. The one thing the Catholic Church truly needs is a vigorous and abiding blast of democracy, and neither the present Pope nor the one before provided that. In fact they did all they could to block it.
The question now is, will the next Pope provide a new beginning? I’d like to think so, except that the overwhelming majority of the College of Cardinals, who vote in Gregory’s successor, have been appointed by John Paul or Gregory. The sign are not good.