Since the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church has entered largely uncharted waters. Surely his stepping down will reverberate through worldwide Catholicism for generations to come in ways as yet unpredicted. What kind of impact will Benedict’s decision to resign have on the Cardinals charged with choosing his successor, and how might it influence the conduct of popes to come? Here are two predictions for the future:
- It will set a precedent for future popes: Benedict has gone against the tide of centuries of tradition by resigning from, rather than dying in, his office. His precedent should make it much more likely that those who follow him as the Bishop of Rome will step down when faced with physical and mental decline. With resignation being accepted as a God-blessed option, future popes will no longer feel obligated to bear the cross of their office across death’s doorstep. Additionally, popes with failing health may face greater pressures from within the church and society at large to call it quits. Speculation and rumors spurred on by mass media could tip the balance in the mind and heart of a pope weighing the possibility of resignation.
- The Church will elect younger and healthier men to the seat of Peter: When the conclave to elect a successor to Benedict XVI gets underway later this month, his unexpected resignation is bound to influence the Cardinals as they think of the Church’s future. For they will certainly realize that if they were to choose a new pope who appears elderly or infirm, his position would be undermined from the very start. Under these circumstances the “papal stock” of young and vigorous Cardinals will increase significantly. And that should be true for future papal elections as well. The days of “caretaker” popes (as some viewed Benedict when he was elected) are probably over.
There has also been speculation about how much influence the new “Pontiff Emeritus” will exercise in the selection process. To all appearances, the now retired Benedict XVI has no desire, either directly or indirectly, to influence the conclave charged with selecting his successor. That was further emphasized by his pledge of full obedience to the new pope, whoever he may be. Still, if future popes follow Benedict’s example by resigning while sound of mind and body, there could come a day when retired popes bear significant weight in the selection process. That, only time will tell.