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He who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal

Updated on February 16, 2013

There is a Vatican saying that the cardinal who goes into conclave expecting to be a pope comes out a cardinal. This cannot be said of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, even though after the death of his predecessor, he acted as a successor in the period leading to the conclave in 2005. Indeed, even though he went in expecting to be pope (we see that in hindsight) he still came out a pope and defied the popular saying.

As such, the announcement early this week by Pope Benedict XVI that he will resign on February 28, 2013 has prompted a lot of speculation, discussion as well as raising many unanswered questions, such as what will he be called after he resigns? Will he revert to Cardinal Ratzinger? There have also been a lot of comments, some favorable but also a lot in the negative, with respect to his years in the Vatican.

Many agree that both John Paul II – despite his charisma and favorability – and Benedict XVI tried to roll back – intentionally or otherwise - the progressive agenda of Vatican II. Benedict XVI was, when he entered the priesthood, on the liberal side. Then he had a metamorphosis and as a cardinal head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith persecuted liberal theologians like Hans Kung, and earned the nickname German Shepherd or God's Rottweiler.

Benedict XVI's Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States further damaged his image, especially in the face of his handling or lack of action in the sex scandals by priests when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Similarly, his cajoling dealings with the anti-Semitic Society of Saint Pius X while at the same time excommunicating women who sympathize with Roman Catholic Women Priests cloud his papacy.

While it may be premature, or even wishful thinking to expect significant developments after February 28 – given the fact that those who will elect his successor were appointed by him and his predecessor – there are at least two good things that result from his decision to step down.

First and foremost, we can hope that future popes will see the wisdom of stepping down when needed. The images of John Paul II in his final years were pitiful to say the least. Many of us wished he would step down as he was incapacitated in many ways. Secondly, even though Benedict XVI has not cited the wind against him in his decision to resign, we can hope that future popes will recognize the direction the church needs to take in a fast changing world. Going back to pre-Vatican II days, or worse, the Medieval Ages, is a daunting endeavor for any leader in the twenty first century.

The cliché that the church has survived turmoil in the past and will survive now may be misleading if not misguided. The truth is that the church has, from the very beginning, learned to adapt. Resistance to modernity may prompt future resignations but the effect is preferable to the cause. It is a matter of time, for example, before the Roman Catholic Women Priests becomes a force to be reckoned by the Vatican establishment. That is just one example.


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