The sudden announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning has led many Americans to speculate that the next pontiff may bring sweeping reform to the nearly 2,000 year-old institution. While the news was unexpected, the transition from shock to both curiosity and speculation about the election of another Roman Catholic to fill the papacy took very little time indeed. While many have hopes for a more liberal Pope and Catholic Church in the coming years, the evidence to suggest such a renaissance within the religion is nonexistent. Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the United States and abroad have criticized Pope Benedict’s conservatism in the light of an increasingly secular world. Many individuals have begun to rejoice already for what could be a tidal wave of reform regarding birth control, abortion, homosexual acceptance, the end to celibacy as a part of Holy Orders and the introduction of female priests.
However, the papacy will not be radically altered by the election, which is set to occur by the end of the month. Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy will help to secure the office of Pope as one of traditional and conservative Catholic dogma. During his time as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict appointed 67 of the 116 Cardinals who will be electing the next Vicar of Christ. There are currently 209 living Cardinals of which approximately 116 Cardinals under the age of 80 will have the opportunity to vote. Pope Benedict has essentially elected his successor himself by appointing new Cardinals who fit his traditional and conservative theology during his tenure. More than half of those voting were personally appointed by Pope Benedict and with the need of a two thirds majority, as well as an additional vote, it seems unlikely that a liberal Pope willing to make sweeping changes in church doctrine is coming any time soon.
Yet, even though the official doctrine will likely remain the same, the conclave may elect the first non-European Pope for the first time in centuries. Speculation over a Cardinal from Africa, South America or North America being elected as the next Pope are is unthinkable, and it is likely in the best interest of the Church as it continues to expand in those places. The Catholic Church has a deep history in Europe, but every year more Catholics leave the faith and even more are not practicing their religion or passing it on to their children. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has continued to expand its base in continents like Africa and Asia while maintaining large numbers in the Americas. The regional power distribution by votes within the College of Cardinals is disproportionately European as roughly 55 percent of the College is European in origin while Europe accounts for only a quarter of the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion members. Conversely in the Americas, where approximately 49 percent of Catholics live, is underrepresented accounting for only 19 percent of the College of Cardinals voting power.
Aside from the many Italian candidates, two individuals with a shot at the papacy include Cardinal Peter Turkson, from Ghana, who would be the fourth African Pope but the first black African Pope (the others having hailed from Northern Africa, within Roman territories), and Cardinal Marc Oullet, who hails from Quebec and seems to fit well within the Church that Benedict XVI has run for nearly the past eight years.
Benedict called for a return to Catholic tradition and conservatism that honored the Catholic Church’s rich history and centuries of theological teachings. While some may be disappointed with the continued trend away from modern day relativism which Benedict XVI campaigned for, it is unlikely that such a radical change in doctrine will occur. That is not necessarily something to be unhappy about. The Catholic Church has had hundreds of years of internal debate and dozens of scholars behind its philosophy and Catechism that should not be changed to be easier or more compatible for modern life. If the Catholic Church was to change in all of the ways listed and disregard centuries of doctrine it would simply no longer be the same church. For practicing Catholics, there will likely be little in the news of change in doctrine this Easter, when the next Pope presides over mass, but that does not mean that there will not be a bright future for Catholicism in the 21st century with a continued emphasis on evangelization in parts of the world where the Catholic Church can still help millions.
Robert Daly is a Collegian Contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.