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COLUMN: The Possibilities Of A New Pope

Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 23:02

Monday morning the whole world was shocked by the news that Pope Benedict XVI would become the first pope in almost 600 years to resign. Benedict said that his failing health prevented him from being able to carry out his duties any longer, and that he would officially leave the Papacy on Feb. 28. Upon his resignation, a Papal Conclave will be held to decide who the next pope will be, and the Vatican has indicated that it hopes to have a new pope selected by Easter.

When I first heard about the resignation, for a split second I was surprised, and then I felt a visceral surge of hope run through me. A new pope, and the uncertainty and possibilities that accompany it, ought to be received by Catholics all over the world as a chance for Catholicism to redefine itself in the world.

Benedict (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) became the pope after the death of the beloved Pope John Paul II. John Paul II was one of the most important and beloved figures of the second half of the 20th century. For Catholics, he helped to retain orthodox views while simultaneously enforcing and supporting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. On an international stage, he was an integral part of the effort to bring down the Soviet Union, and he vastly improved Catholic relations with other major world religions. His funeral in 2005 was the largest gathering of heads of state in history, and one of the largest Christian pilgrimages ever. To become pope after John Paul II was an unenviable task, and one to which Ratzinger had repeatedly said he did not aspire.

Benedict came to the Papacy known more for his scholarly abilities than his administrative skills. His conservative defenses of Church doctrine had earned him the nickname "God’s Rottweiler," and he had been a major player in the College of Cardinals for nearly a quarter century before his election as Pope. But Benedict’s Papacy has been filled with scandal and obstacles, not only for him, but Catholics worldwide. He made controversial comments on Islam, and took a hardline orthodox approach when it came to ordaining women and dealing with women’s religious orders. Of course the most notable scandal of his Papacy was the horrific church abuse scandals and cover-up that rocked the world in 2010. The scandal was one of the lowest moments of the Catholic Church in centuries. Benedict was unlucky enough to have his time as pope overlap with these scandals, and he deserves to be credited for meeting with the families of the victims, and for striving for justice in those cases. Benedict also deserves credit for stepping down as gracefully as he did, rather than having his health force him only to be able to carry out his duties in a limited capacity. It is too early to determine how history will judge Benedict, but the odds are likely that he will be known as a profoundly important and respected intellectual thinker, who became pope in the most unfortunate of times. But that is a job for future, and the present presents a great opportunity for the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church still has not recovered from the sexual abuse scandals. And the generation that was most affected by the scandal is mine. Too many young people only associate Catholicism with ribald priest jokes, or with the stigma of child abuse, or even with staunch conservative dogma. If the Church does not do something to combat these generalizations, they run the risk of ostracizing the youth.

But I am filled with hope about the future of the Church. The election of a new pope promises a new day for the Catholic Church. The next Papal Conclave will elect a new pope, and that pope will define Catholicism for not only the next 10 to 15 years, but also define it in the minds of a whole generation. The number of Catholics worldwide totals one billion, and they need a Church and a pope they can believe in.

If the Church wants to move away from its current image, it can signal that very strongly by electing a pope from somewhere outside Europe. Benedict was from Germany, John Paul II was from Poland, and before John Paul II we had 400 years of Italian popes. But the world’s Catholics are a truly international demographic, and it is time that the Church’s leadership reflect this. Places like Africa have developed enough that candidates from those places ought to be strongly considered. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is seen by many as one of the leading candidates in the field of possible popes. A black pope in the modern era is an incredibly exciting idea, one that captivates the imagination of both Catholics and non-Catholics. Turkson’s mix of orthodox theology and emphasis on the role of social justice within the Church make him a very appealing choice for the College of Cardinals.

Latin America also has a strong pool of candidates, including Cardinal Oscar Mariaga of Honduras. Mariaga may be the most liberal of all the realistic papabili (unofficial term for possible candidates for Pope). He has made criticisms of capitalism and is a prominent leader in the fight for social justice in Latin America. In addition, Mariaga possesses the administrative organization and people skills that many found Benedict to be lacking.

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