Join The Times' book club. This month's selection: "Cadillac Desert"
Opinion Opinion L.A.

Is Benedict helping Francis 'downsize' the papacy?

Vaticanologists inside and outside journalism have been puzzling over the surprise appearance of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at a ceremony Saturday at which his successor, Pope Francis, installed new members of the College of Cardinals.

ABC News described the event as “an unprecedented blending of papacies past, present and future” (the “future” referring to the presumed presence of Francis’ successor among the new and veteran cardinals in attendance).

But what did Benedict’s presence signify?

PHOTOS: Pope Francis' small steps to lift liberals' hearts

One theory is that it was designed to shore up the credibility of the new crop of 19 cardinals with Catholic traditionalists who pine for Benedict’s papacy and look askance at the reformist Francis. That theory can be spun in at least two different ways: as proof that Francis is so distrusted by conservative Catholics that he needs to reassure them by inviting his predecessor, or as a sign of the present pope’s shrewdness in co-opting the conservatives by associating their hero with his more inclusive cohort of cardinals.

My own take on the “blending of papacies” is that it serves the quite different agenda that Francis seems to be pursuing: the downsizing and de-mythologizing of the papal office.

Almost nine years ago I interviewed John R. Quinn, the retired archbishop of San Francisco and the author of a book titled “The Reform of the Papacy: The Costly Call to Christian Unity.” In a column drawn on the book and the interview, I described what a downsized papacy might look like.

For example, it would be “more parochial, more local, with, most likely, an Italian pope who tended to his Roman flock and didn’t stride so much on the world stage.” All right, Francis is an Argentinian (albeit one of Italian descent), but otherwise he matches my description. To the delight of liberal Catholics, he prefers to refer to himself as “Bishop of Rome” rather than “pope” or “pontiff.”

Also, I wrote, a downsized papacy “would not have to be a lifetime office, sparing John Paul’s successors the anguish he experienced in recent years, which, however edifying, is not an ordeal imposed on other aged bishops.”

Under canon law and according to Catholic theology, a retired pope has no residual authority. Still, the optics of two white-cassocked popes — one active, one emeritus — undermine the mystique of the pope as a monarchical figure. (That’s why some conservative Catholics were made uneasy by Benedict’s abdication.)

Perhaps Benedict’s presence at last weekend’s ceremony reflected nothing more than Francis’ generosity toward his frail predecessor. But the new pope is a canny communicator, and one message communicated by the presence of two popes together is that popes, like other bishops, don’t have to serve for life.

Who knows: If Benedict lives a few years longer and the 77-year-old Francis desires to retire at 80, there could be three popes at a future ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica.


Justice Clarence Thomas' silence is 'disgraceful'? Not really.

U.S. women's Olympic hockey team: Yes, there is crying in hockey

A costly pain in the neck, and what it says about healthcare in the U.S.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Is Pope Francis purging conservative cardinals?

    Is Pope Francis purging conservative cardinals?

    Journalists and liberal Roman Catholics are making much — perhaps too much — of Pope Francis’ decision to remove a conservative American cardinal from the congregation that helps choose bishops. The New York Times said that the pope “moved … against” Cardinal Raymond Burke by not reappointing him...

  • Pope Francis can be a player in Ukraine's identity crisis

    Pope Francis can be a player in Ukraine's identity crisis

    As pro-Western and pro-Russian Ukrainians battle over the future orientation of their country, there is a world figure who could offer an important symbolic gift to European-minded Ukrainians: Pope Francis.

  • Pope Francis takes on 'trickle-down' economics

    Pope Francis takes on 'trickle-down' economics

    Pope Francis has released an “apostolic exhortation” that revisits some by now familiar themes of his pontificate. One is the need for a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets.” Another is that Christians should condemn the “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

  • A global obligation to Myanmar's Rohingya refugees

    A global obligation to Myanmar's Rohingya refugees

    After watching for several weeks as refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh drifted in crowded boats in the seas off Southeast Asia, begging for food and water, some dying along the way, the world is, finally, responding. Although they initially pushed away some of the boats, Malaysia and Indonesia...

  • Nurturing smart justice in Los Angeles County

    Nurturing smart justice in Los Angeles County

    Nearly four years ago, California's 58 counties and their jails began taking on some of the state's burden of housing and supervising nonviolent felons, and contrary to widespread belief, the shift wasn't merely a result of federal court orders to reduce the state prison population. In fact, policymakers...

  • California is steering toward more reasonable traffic ticket laws

    California is steering toward more reasonable traffic ticket laws

    Here's something to elicit happy honks from California motorists: Two of the more abusive aspects of traffic citations — "bail for trial" and excessive fines — are being hauled off the road.