The impending resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is prompting cultural liberals to demand the Roman Catholic Church embrace more progressive doctrine on key issues like marriage and abortion, but one of America’s leading Catholic voices says that won’t happen.
“This prejudiced idea that the newest ideas are always the best is a falsehood,” said Father Robert Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. “I don’t think it much effects the way the College of Cardinals thinks about these things, especially given the fact that they elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger within days of his having preached a homily in which he identified and warned against the dictatorship of relativism.
“So these are the men who elected this man. I can’t see that they would weaken or renounce what we consider to be true. There is a tendency on the part of liberal news media to assess the pope the way one assesses political candidates. That is, in order to get elected, you have to appeal to a popular mentality and so the marriage issue and the life issue would be weakened, but that’s not what the church is about. The church is about honestly discerning the truth and then articulating it in the best way it can,” said Sirico, who says the cardinals may select a pontiff with a very different personality but not one with a vastly different worldview.
“Would we have a different personality? Would a man be gentler or more convivial or funnier or more serious? Yes, you’ll have a variety of personalities, in just the same way you had the difference between Paul and Barnabas and Peter. So no, the church isn’t going to change because of popular consensus,” he said.
So what kind of choice is Sirico expecting from the College of Cardinals?
“I expect a Catholic pope. This may shock The New York TImes,” laughed Sirico. “I think that given the men that Benedict and, before him, John Paul II appointed to the College of Cardinals, I think we’re very much going to get a pope with a different personality but very much faithful to the ancient tradition of the church.”
Pope Benedict XVI stunned Vatican observers and much of the world with his announcement he would resign at the end of the month. It breaks almost six centuries of pontiffs serving until death. The last time a pope stepped down was in 1415. The pope cited physical wear and tear as the main reason for his impending resignation. He is now 85 years old and believes he can no longer meet the demanding requirements of the papacy.
“He mentioned in several interviews prior to becoming pope that he considers himself fragile and cautious. He also spoke very often about the possibility of a pope resigning, that this wasn’t an inconceivable thing,” said Sirico. “While it is a sobering thought to think the last time a pope resigned was before America was discovered, I think there’s some order we’ll see unfold here. It’ll be a different kind of conclave because we’ve usually done it in the context of mourning a pope and this time we’ll have a former pope who will still be alive.”
When the College of Cardinals selected then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope in 2005, his advanced age led may to suggest Benedict XVI would be a caretaker pope. Sirico says the pontiff ended up being much more than that.
“I think he was more than a caretaker pope. I think he unpacked a lot of the pontificate of John Paul II in the sense that he really delineated some of the teaching and expressed it in a slightly different way.
“John Paul was not an easy act to follow either in terms of his charismatic personality or his intellect, but I think the way Ratzinger went about his pontificate showed that he was his own man. He had his own style, and, intellectually, he was a beautiful complement,” said Sirico. “I think where he did make a very obvious advance was in the renewal of the church’s liturgy, especially in the greater permission for the celebration of the older forms of the mass and a deeper understanding of the contemplative and spiritual dimension of Catholic worship.”
The pope is also head of state for the Vatican. Sirico says Benedict’s accomplishments on that front include stronger ties with Israel and the Jewish people as well as some tension with Obama administration over some of his policies. Sirico also hopes the Vatican will make some changes at the top of its diplomatic team once a new leader is installed.