At around midnight, Manila time, Pope Benedict XVI will leave the Vatican grounds by helicopter; about three hours after that, he will become the first pontiff to resign the papacy in six centuries, and the seat of St. Peter will be declared vacant. Who will be chosen to take that seat will help determine whether the challenges that currently confront the Catholic Church will be met with clarity and resolve, or will continue to undermine the rock on which the Catholic faith rests.
The resignation comes at a crucial time in Church history. We realize that the 2,000-year-old Church does think in terms of centuries; even the famous theologian Yves Congar, a highly influential peritus or expert at the truly historic Second Vatican Council, was said to have suggested that the teachings of Vatican II would take 500 years to be fully absorbed. (As a point of reference, consider the Christianization of the Philippines, which began in 1521; we are still eight years away from that event’s 500th anniversary.)
But after scanning the horizon, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that the challenges facing the Church today are truly epochal, history-shaping. While the Church played a role in the collapse of communism in Europe a generation ago, it is confronted today with what it must consider as the runaway success of secularism in Europe and in North America—a much more pervasive and elusive foe, against which Benedict’s vaunted New Evangelization has barely begun to marshal its forces.
While it can count the rapid growth of the Church in Africa and in parts of Asia as unparalleled in history, the Church is confronted today with dynamism in other faiths (such as the success of the Pentecostals in Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country) and division within. The divide between those who emphasize Vatican II’s spirit of “aggiornamento” (updating or, more controversially, modernization) and those who champion its spirit of “resourcement” (renewal, and therefore a recommitment to tradition) continues to exist, and is reflected in debates over social justice, the role of theologians, the details of reproductive health, perhaps especially changes in the liturgy (the new phrasing in the English form of the Mass being only the latest flashpoint). In a sense, the unfortunate split a few years ago in the Couples for Christ movement may also be traced to this difference in emphasis.
Not least: While millions of people around the world, many of them non-Catholic, continue to be served by Catholic ministries for the poor, the war-stricken, and the very ill, the Church is confronted today with a scandal that threatens its future: the plague of sexual abuses committed by members of the clergy themselves, and the cover-up that lasted for decades.
This scandal is a true stumbling block to faith. Even non-Catholics who do not believe in the existence of the devil can follow the logic of struggle; the adversary has taken the fight to the Church itself. But the first disclosures of sexual abuse took place a decade or so ago, and yet the Vatican still seems to be struggling in its response. Benedict has met with some of the victims and apologized to them for what he called the Church’s “open wound,” has condemned the abuses and streamlined the procedure for dealing with abusers—but none of this is enough.
The Church needs a thorough housecleaning, a wholesale effort to dig out all the rot. Benedict hinted at the magnitude of the work that faces the papacy when he confessed in his resignation statement that he no longer had “both strength of mind and body” to continue in the Petrine ministry. To heed St. Matthew’s witness, therefore, and “cut off” one’s right hand “if the right hand scandalizes thee” (to use the Douay-Rheims version), the Church needs a pope with precisely fullness of strength in mind and body.
The cardinals assembling in Rome today have the opportunity to steady the “barque of Peter” in increasingly stormy seas, but first they have got to throw the jetsam of scandal overboard. Only then can they heed their founder’s words, “launch off into the deep and let down their nets,” again.