The Pope Bows Out

Besides the usual chocolate and beef, the world’s one billion-plus Catholics will have to do without a pontiff during Lent, at least for a while.

“Citing advanced years and infirmity, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic world on Monday by saying he would resign on Feb. 28 after less than eight years in office, the first pope to do so in six centuries.

‘In today’s world,’ the pope said, ‘subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.’

Silver-haired, stooped and cerebral, Benedict could well influence the choice of a successor because he has molded the College of Cardinals — the papal electoral body — by his appointment of kindred spirits during his papacy.”

That last part is what scares me most.

Admittedly, Benedict wasn’t that terrible a pope, but he did nothing to repair the church’s image worldwide — and for that matter, John Paul II wasn’t that great a pope either. Both were staunchly in opposition to the women’s liberation and gay rights movements; both preached against the use of contraception, even though at least half of Catholic followers live in developing countries still fighting the spread of AIDS. And, lest we forget, both were blind and deaf to the child abuse scandals that have risen over the past few decades.

Now, the church is a shambles.

For that reason, the College of Cardinals would do well to elect a person unlike his predecessors — maybe someone from Latin America (which has never happened) and maybe someone a bit younger and in better health (Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was 78 when he got to wear the funny hat).

Off the top of my shaved head, might I suggest Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa?

In addition to its outdatedness on issues concerning women’s rights, gay rights, STDS and stem cell research — and, again, there’s that whole “molesting boys” business — the church also faces plummeting attendance. According to one recent survey conducted by a Catholic organization, over 50 percent of American Catholics said they only went to church once a month. (The number comes from a Catholic group, which means we should probably subtract 10 points from its result, and the percentage is said to be in the teens or even single digits among European Catholics.)

Full disclosure — and this is not news to those familiar with my views — I’m a nonbeliever, an atheist, an agnostic, a rationalist or whatever other term is en vogue at the moment. Even still, because the Catholic Church is such a powerful global organization with the potential to do a world of good or plenty of harm, and because Catholicism is so strong within the Latino community, I have a vested interest in the Church’s leadership.

The time has come for the Church to modernize and enter, at least, the second half of the last century.

I would say that Catholics need to take their church into their own hands and pressure its leaders to join them in modernity, but that’s more of a Protestant thing.

[Photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images via TIME]

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