Editorial: A pope for the times

Pope Benedict XVI's most progressive act has been his resignation - a sensational move out of step with Catholic tradition. History will probably remember him for it rather than for his tenacious attempts to resist modernisation in any form.

So radical is the abdication that it is being accounted for in highly speculative ways, but it is in keeping with the humility of the man and the laws of the church.

Benedict, it seems, has made a realistic estimate of his declining mental and physical abilities and the problems that confront him and decided to vacate the Throne of Peter in the least disruptive way he could. The decision, which must have been difficult for so conservative a man to make, opens the way for a pontificate of renewal.

Not that Benedict was likely to have considered the need for renewal. His pontificate has been characterised by the defence of the conservative Bavarian faith he was brought up in and then accounted for as a brilliant theologian. His message was that the old ways and teachings were immutable and a comprehensive guide for the faithful in the modern world.

Benedict's much commented on lack of charisma fitted him for that task. His conduct gave rise to no expectation of change, which allowed the church a chance to take breath after the excitement of his predecessor, John Paul II. In that sense, Benedict was a pope for the times.

Whether the new pope will come to terms with the new times is unpredictable. No cardinal is the obvious successor and the conduct of a pope once enthroned is always uncertain. What is certain is that the conclave will be made up of largely conservative prelates who are likely to elect a conservative man. It is also inconceivable that any pope in this century would overturn the church's teaching on abortion, gay marriage, celibacy or the ordination of women into the priesthood. In that sense, talk of a liberal or a conservative papacy is unrealistic.

That far from rules out the renewal that the Catholic Church has repeatedly undertaken in its long history, and renewal is the watchword now, as a younger generation of clergy take positions of leadership. They are in touch with the contemporary world in a way that Benedict and John Paul - products of World War II Europe and the old church - could not be. The new generation of priests know they are living in a world culturally fluid, less bound by nationality, besotted with technology and consuming, environmental, psychologically aware and with more freedom in the way it conducts relationships and demanding an equal role for women.

The new head of the church, if he is to be a pope for the times, will have to devise teachings that cope with the current realities.

The election of a cardinal from the Third World or Latin America would signal that an in-tune papacy was beginning. The new pope would come from an area where most Catholics live, often in conditions that need the alleviation of just social teaching and social action, and where the church is most dynamic. It would be unlikely that such a pope would refuse to lead his church in new directions of engagement or not urge a revitalisation of faith.

The Press