Pope Benedict XVI knows how to keep a secret. In a world of strategic leaks, gabby underlings, intrusive paparazzi and cyber-hackers, the pope was able to pull off a surprise when he announced his plan to step down as head of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the month.
Since no other pope had done such a thing in nearly 600 years, most people assumed Benedict would be the top man at the Vatican until the day he died, like all but eight of his predecessors. But even at the beginning of his papacy in 2005, Benedict dropped hints that it would be justified for a pontiff to bow out early if his health seriously inhibited his ability to do the job. Benedict had watched Pope John Paul II become frail in his final years and saw how the lack of strong leadership impeded the work of the church. With his own health faltering, Benedict apparently decided he wanted to set a different example.
Could this be a new precedent? Now that medical science can keep people alive, even as their bodies and minds are seriously diminished, lifetime sinecures are more problematic than in the past, when natural death could not be forestalled for years. By this act, Benedict is indicating that the old system does not work anymore and that the office is more important than the man who holds the office. For some Catholics, that is a troubling idea. They do not want to think that a pope is like a president or a prime minister, a mere mortal to be turned out of power and routinely replaced. For them, the pope is God’s anointed, the shepherd of a flock 1.2 billion strong who cannot simply give notice and head off to play golf in Palm Springs with other retirees.
But the deed is done and now attention turns to the selection of Benedict’s successor. As in the past, progressive Catholics will be praying for a new direction, a choice that indicates a departure from the unbending theological conservatism that has held sway at the highest reaches of the church for decades. It is hard to imagine such a shift will come, however, since the Cardinals who will be choosing the new pope are appointees of Benedict and John Paul, the very men who sought to clamp down on the liberalization that swept though the church in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Even if the new pope looks different from the endless line of old European men -- an African or Latin American, for instance -- he will likely be a man who subscribes to traditional views. Do not expect priests to be allowed to marry or women to become priests anytime soon. Benedict may be going, but his conservatism has been institutionalized.