In 2005, as the College of Cardinals was preparing to elect a successor to the recently deceased Pope John Paul II, I wrote a column titled “Should the Papacy be Downsized?”
It was inspired by an intriguing book written by John R. Quinn, a retired archbishop of San Francisco. In “The Reform of the Papacy,” Quinn had proposed a lower-profile papal office and a more collegial relationship between the pope and bishops around the world.
I wrote in the column that “a re-imagined papacy also 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.”
That was clear this week when Benedict published an eyebrow-raising essay about the church’s sexual abuse crisis, the subject of a recent meeting of bishops and other church leaders convened by Pope Francis. NPR reported accurately that Benedict’s analysis of the crisis “differs significantly from that of his successor.”
Benedict’s article, titled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” is turgid and not terribly surprising. It struck me as another volley in the by now tedious debate between liberal and conservative Catholics about the origins of the sexual-abuse crisis. Each faction has used the crisis to score points against the other.
Some critics have pointed to a Vatican decree saying that a Bishop Emeritus “will be careful not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the diocese. He will want to avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan bishop.” The suggestion is that the same rule should apply to a retired Bishop of Rome.
The natural assumption is that Francis is irked or offended by Benedict’s intervention, despite the fact that the article closes with an expression of gratitude to the current pope “for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today.”