Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement Monday, becoming the first Pope in nearly 600 years to take such a step. The announcement was met with widespread and wide-ranging emotions across the US, with virtually every news outlet providing a story on the event. As the news cyclone swirled Monday, facts forwarded and explanations grasped at, I couldn’t help but become utterly stuck to one simple question that seemed to sink like a stone amongst a sea of more complex and elaborate queries: Why?
Why does this matter? Why does it matter that a Pope whose most notable steps have been the further alienation of an already alienated, archaic religion is stepping down? Indeed, when all is said and done, I do believe Pope Benedict’s most notable action in his eight year Papal tenure will be his termination of that tenure. That statement’s meant as a backhanded slap, to be sure, but also as a serious critique of a man who, among other things, ignored increasing cries to allow women into the priesthood, accept gay Catholics into the church, and unite more closely and harmoniously with other world religions. Given these actions, I believe Benedict XVI will go down as a weak Pope. However, this does not mean, unfortunately, that I hold any great hope for Benedict’s successor.
The antiquated and immovable moral foundations of the Catholic Church — and all world religions for that matter — are increasingly at odds with the largely secular moral framework of our country. An example of this would be the great strides our country has taken in the areas of gay rights and gender equality, the biggest obstacles to which have come from organized religion, both in the Catholic Church and various fundamentalist Protestant sects.
The heyday of Catholicism, and of Christian religion in America, is dwindling. Polls and statistics show that increasingly younger generations are abandoning the religions in which they were raised. If they are anything like me, they are doing this not as a matter of theological objection or a rejection of the sense of community the church provides, but from an awareness of the ever-widening gap between their own ideals and the Church’s. Catholicism’s failure to adapt and solve — or at the very least hear out — issues concerning gay rights, contraception and gender equality may be winning them points with the older, conservative generations. But these are not the people the Catholic Church must win over if it wishes to survive in the U.S. and globally. The church must win a young following, and to do this they will likely have to do something very difficult for an organization founded on the teachings of historical figures: They will have to look to uncharted territory.
I write this column not as a militant atheist. I was raised Catholic and am no longer. I have doubts, certainly, about the absolute guarantee of a greater power beyond that which I can see and hear myself, just as I have doubts about most things that are told to me in black and white and with absolute conviction. I am, however, open to the possibility of a God. Heck, I may even want one. If I am to become a religious adherent in my adult life, however, the Church is going to have to meet me half way. They are also going to have to admit, hard as it may be for them, that there are some things they are not sure about, theologically, morally and socially. As it stands now, the Church equates all uncertainty with weakness, and anything less than iron conviction with fallacy. This may have worked for our parents’ generation, serving a rock on which to lean, but we are the generation of uncertainty, and we do not mind if our leaders show themselves to be human.
I mentioned before that I hold no great hope for the next Pope. Indeed, I am a cynic, and it may be hard to fully please me unless the next Pope is Barack Obama. I am aware, and not entirely pleased, that the next Pope will be someone who has spent his entire life in abbeys, churches and monasteries, doing work which though morally sound is hardly connected with most people or issues of today. But supposing I can accept this, may I ask in return for a religion that accepts — or at least acknowledges — the social values I have clearly chosen in my own personal life? Why must I choose between being a Catholic and being a Liberal? I shouldn’t have to, and nobody should have to choose between practicing their religion and practicing anything else they damn well want.
Young people are on the verge of abandoning this God advertised as infinitely accepting and loving, all because his representatives on Earth are not infinitely accepting and loving enough. The Church is no longer needed as a moral framework on how to live our lives. For that we are doing just fine on our own. What it can provide is a sense of community, a sense of shelter and warmth for those who have otherwise been cast out, rather than a barrier against those same people. After all, Jesus’ earliest followers included prostitutes and street thugs, beggars and outlaws. Perhaps the Catholic Church needs to look no further than this for its lesson in diversity.
The next Pope best understand all of this. He best understand the superfluous nature of God in our modern society, best know the thin ice that he walks on and the fog which surrounds him. Then, and only then, can he make his light shine through.