Written by Onyekachi Eze
The search for a new pope begins as former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger steps down as the head of Roman Catholic Church by 8 pm today. Pope Benedict XVI, who will be 86 years in April, was elected into the throne of St. Peter in 2005. He announced his intention to resign on February 11, citing ill-health and old age. The Pope told the cardinals that his age had deteriorated “to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me”. At 86, Pope Benedict is unarguably the oldest pontiff in recent time. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II died at the age of 84. He was 58 years when he was elected pope in 1978 and ruled for a little over 26 years. Pope Benedict XVI on the other hand was elected pope at 78 years of age and has been in office for only eight years.
The Pope’s resignation was the first since 1415 when Pope Gregory XII resigned his papacy to end the western schism in the church. During Gregory’s papacy, there were three claimants to the throne – himself who was the Pope in Rome, Avignon Benedict XIII and Pisan John XXIII. The two last popes were called Antipope. Pope Gregory XII convened the Council of Constance and authorised it to elect his successor before he resigned from office.
Apart from Pope Gregory XII, eight other popes before him had abdicated their papacy. There were also reports that Pope Benedict XVI’s predecessor, John Paul II in February 1989, wrote a letter of resignation to the Dean of the College of Cardinals. In the letter, the Pope said he would resign “if he had an incurable disease that would prevent him from exercising the apostolic ministry, or in case of a ‘severe and prolonged impairment’ that would have kept him from being the Pope”. Fortunately, none of these happened and John Paul II remained as Pope till death.
Pope Pius VII, who ruled between 1800 and 1823, was said to have signed a document of resignation should he be imprisoned in France where he had gone to crown Napoleon Bonaparte king in 1804. And during the World War II, Pope Pius XII signed a document indicating that he should be considered to have resigned from office if he were kidnapped by the Nazis. The Pope instructed that the College of Cardinals should be evacuated to Portugal to elect his successor.
The Canon law makes no provision for a Pope to resign from office either due to old age or on health ground, unlike the case of bishop.
Catholic scholars, however, were of the opinion that John Paul 11did not consider throwing in the towel, even when his health failed him, because of possible schism this might cause within the church. And in the case of Pope Benedict XVI, it was a commendation because he has been able to separate the holder from the office. Stephen White, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington DC, said the Pope had demonstrated that the primary role of the holder of the office is service. “The papacy, in other words, was not given him for his sake, but for the sake of the church’s mission,” White was quoted in The Huffington Post.
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is raising some concerns. Some observers argue that the old age and health conditions he cited as the reasons were not cogent enough. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, despite his age, suffered from Parkinson disease for many years, which even distorted his speech, yet he held on till death.
A report credited to an Italian newspaper, La Repubblica linked Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation to a 300-page report submitted to the Pope on December 17 last year, which exposes some scandals going on at the Vatican. The report, which was said to have been prepared by three cardinals – Julián Cardinal Herranz, (a Spanish), Jozef Cardinal Tomko (a Slovak) and Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgi, who was former Archbishop of Palermo, mentioned of “a secret gay conclave at the Vatican being blackmailed over acts of a ‘worldly nature’ with laymen”. The authors were commissioned by the Pope himself to carry out the investigation.
But the Vatican dismissed such insinuation, and said it is an attempt to influence the Cardinals in their choice of a new Pope. The Vatican secretariat in a statement said the report is “unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions”.
The report is to be presented to the next Pope. There have been calls that the Cardinals who will be in the Vatican for the conclave should be availed of the content of the report, to enable them think of the direction of where Pope Benedict’s successor will come from.
Whatever is the situation, the Catholic Church will not be the same again. As the 116 Cardinals (now bring down to 115 after Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation) who are eligible to elect Pope Benedict’s successor gather in Rome for the conclave, it will be a battle line between the conservatives and liberals. The two groups clashed at the election of Pope Benedict in 2005 with the conservatives having the upper hand. And there is no indication that the liberals will win this time. Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict, an unapologetic conservative, appears to have made more conservatives Cardinals than the liberals. For instance, the last six cardinals he appointed late last year are mainly from Africa, Asia and Latin America. These are continents where the church is not yet caught up with the wave of liberalism.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, former Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh gave an insight of what might dominate debate among the Cardinals when they go into the conclave to elect Pope Benedict’s successor. Cardinal O’Brien mentioned the issue of celibacy, abortion and euthanasia. Although he said abortion and euthanasia were “basic dogmatic beliefs” of “divine origin” which the church could never accept, he noted that many priests struggle to cope with celibacy, and should be able to marry and have children.
Cardinal O’Brien was obviously expressing the liberal views. He, however, came under heavy attacks for expressing such view. The cardinal will therefore be cut in between electing a Pope who will lift the celibacy ban or the one who will maintain the status quo ante.
The Cardinals will also consider where the next Pope will come from. For many centuries now, Europe (mainly Italy) has been producing the head of the church. Will the Cardinals therefore be disposed to a Pope from Africa, Asia or Latin America? Pope Benedict was elected at the age of 78; will the Cardinals go for a younger Pope this time?
After today, Pope Benedict XVI will retire to a life of prayer and study in a monastery behind the Vatican walls. He said he would not participate in the conclave that will elect his successor. Benedict, who was described when he was elected in 2005 as “an introvert in an extrovert world,” will fade into obscurity.