This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Popes just don’t retire, or so it seemed. But Benedict XVI can cite four precedents – the last one occurring 598 years ago. No one will accuse the Roman Catholic Church of being short on institutional memory.
The papacy doesn’t translate well in the United States, a whippersnapper country with only a few centuries behind it.
Many Americans thought they were knocking Joseph Ratzinger when they called him a traditionalist and an upholder of orthodoxy. In his world, those are not insults. The Roman Catholic Church and its Orthodox cousins have persisted all these centuries precisely because they have insisted on their core traditions through centuries of social revolutions.
The United States is the global hothouse of social revolution, and Americans tend to think of themselves as challengers of authority. The country’s dominant strain of Christianity – Protestantism – has “protest” built into its very name. But even American Catholics have been vexing the Roman hierarchy headaches for decades – by rejecting the church’s teachings against contraceptives, for example.
There’s no chance the Roman Catholic Church will start abandoning millennia-old dogma and embracing social trends with the resignation of Benedict. Benedict himself – as pope and as aide to John Paul II – has supervised admissions for the College of Cardinals and recruited only strictly orthodox bishops. The cardinals who will soon meet to choose his successor will pick a man who shares his highly conservative views.
But given the importance of Catholicism in America, we can hope that Benedict’s successor will be willing to overhaul administrative practices and attitudes that have hurt the church itself, among others.
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