OPINION: When health and mobility issues led the Catholic Bishop of Dunedin, Len Boyle, to step down in 2002, we pointed to the by-then distressing physical frailty of Pope John Paul II and asked if this wasn't a case of a bishop who knew when to quit and a pope who did not.
Rather than minimising the Pope's fragility, Bishop Boyle suggested that the message it sent out about constancy and hard-won achievements in the face of adversity might not be without their inspirational qualities.
Perhaps so. However, the bishop could not pretend that he would have reacted with unalloyed dismay had John Paul resigned. He said he would be able to empathise with that, but it was the Pope's call.
John Paul did labour on as best he could to his dying day, in the tradition of the role.
Surely nobody had a more close-up view of the best and worst of that approach than Joseph Ratzinger, his right-hand man, regarded as a hardliner even by Catholic standards, who in turn became Pope Benedict XVI.
His own health now in sharp decline, Benedict has shocked his church, and many outside it, by stepping down with the most simple of explanations, that the job required "both strength of mind and body" in a combination he could no longer provide. Not since the Middle Ages has a pope made this call. Some should have.
Like his predecessor, Benedict has been a doctrinal and social conservative on issues like abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and contraception - no condoms for Africa under his watch. He was said to be more active than he was given credit for in confronting the scandal of priestly paedophiles. Even if this is so, we remain disinclined to console him. His preference for internal canon law, rather than hauling offenders to the police and court systems, rightly angered victims and the wider public.
Between these hard, hard lines, his papacy did strike more than a few grace notes, in many areas communicating well and thoughtfully, with the secular world and other religions.
His replacement is an issue that goes beyond mere matters of a vigorous figurehead or even geographical politics about whether it is time for a non-European pope. Choosing a pope isn't really akin to choosing whose turn it is to host the Olympics.
There are many within the church who do want a more progressive pope. And you better believe there are many who don't.
Benedict was elected after John Paul II created many new cardinals from the more conservative ranks of the church and he lowered the threshold from two-thirds support to a simple majority. Benedict (and we hesitate to call this a Machiavellian move) restored the two-thirds rule. This means candidates will be more easily blocked, which may, in turn, increase the chances of compromise candidates prevailing.
An interesting caution to external pundits, however, has come from La Stampa's Vatican reporter Marco Tosatti, against assuming that it's all politics and strategies when the cardinals meet to vote.
These, he said, are old men aware they will themselves be facing judgment soon enough. They really try to imagine the challenges facing the church and pick the man who can meet them.
That would be good. But you'd have to say a measure of human fallibility has from time to time crept into what is meant, after all, to be a matter of consulting the will of God.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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