The announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was a surprise breaking seven centuries of tradition. In addition, it is a signal of the demands that the Catholic Church faces in the modern world. We hope it is also an opportunity to consider changes in the institution.
The decision to set a date and time for his departure is an extraordinary gesture from the Pope. Still in full possession of his faculties, he decided to step aside, taking into account that in the early 21st century, Peter’s heir needs more energy than what this 87-year-old can provide.
The retirement of Benedict XVI to a monastery beginning in March closes a chapter in the history of the church in which a conservative wing guided its destiny for 35 years. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected prefect of the influential Congregation of Doctrine and Faith four years after John Paul II was appointed. They both redirected the church, moving it away from the most progressive factions that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. Benedict XVI continued the traditionalist path of his predecessor.
However, Ratzinger will be remembered because of the scandal involving reports of thousands of sexual abuse cases of priests against minors. From his position at the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith, he knew about the reports for years, and was one of those responsible at the top level for the negligent and complicit attitude of the church toward these horrendous crimes.
As Benedict XVI, he addressed this subject openly. He met with the victims, praying and crying with them, in addition to harshly condemning the members of the clergy involved. Nevertheless, it has been too little, too late for betraying the trust placed on a moral leader and the pain of lives destroyed at a tender age.
Choosing the next leader for millions of Catholics is an opportunity for the church to turn around the animosity toward the philosophy of openness and inclusion of the Second Vatican Council. There are urgent issues outside religion, like the social impact of globalization, gay people and abortion, while inside issues include celibacy, priesthood for women and communion for divorcees, among others.
The College of Cardinals will be the one making the decision and setting the course the church will follow for years. We hope it is a course of openness that helps leave behind one of the most shameful pages in the long history of the Catholic Church.