But all of those events, as newsworthy as they are, were overshadowed by news from Rome. After all, the last time President Obama gave a State of the Union address was Jan. 24, 2012. The last time a pope resigned as head of the Catholic Church was 1415.
Pope Benedict XVI gave his two week’s notice, in Latin, during what was expected to be a routine meeting of cardinals. No mystery, he said. At the age of 85, he simply didn’t feel up to the pressures of the job, anymore. “Strength of mind and body are necessary,” he told the stunned church leaders, “strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Should we take what the pope says at face value? Rumors abound to the contrary. The pope’s not just tired, he has serious heart problems. Or maybe even leukemia. The pope has been tied to the Vatican Bank financial scandal. He’s implicated in the leak of documents by his butler. Or he could just never rise above the priest sexual abuse scandal, which he didn’t do enough to prevent when he was the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer.
Sounds like stuff right out of a Dan Brown novel, which is where it belongs. All evidence indicates that what the pope said is true. He’s more and more frail. Doctors advised against any international travel. He knows he’s too old to cut the mustard, anymore. So he’s now taking the advice he once gave John Paul II, his predecessor: Step down and let somebody younger take over.
The more important question is not: Why did the pope quit? But: What will this change of leadership mean for the Catholic Church? And the answer, sadly, is: Not much.
Clearly, the church is in trouble. While the church continues to grow in Latin America and Africa, its historic base is gone. The Catholic population, here and in Europe, is shrinking, especially among young people. According to one recent survey, one out of 10 Americans is a former Catholic. Seminaries are not as full as they once were. Formerly active parish churches have shut down. And the teachings of the church on human sexuality are hopelessly outdated. Witness the 2011 survey of the Guttmacher Institute, which found that 98 percent of sexually experienced Catholic women have defied the church by using some form of artificial birth control.
To expand its presence in the 21st century, the Catholic Church needs to adapt in at least three areas. The church can never hope to attract female followers as long as it continues to treat women as second-class citizens by denying them the opportunity to be ordained. This ban on female priests has nothing to do with Jesus. His most loyal followers were women. The ban on women priests is based on nothing but the sinful pride of men who have always held power and refuse to give it up.
To survive, the church also needs to recognize that priests can marry and still do their jobs. Every other major religion, including the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church, has long accepted a married clergy. Again, the demand for celibacy doesn’t reflect the teachings of Jesus. From Scripture, it appears likely that all 12 of the apostles were married. This is another case of celibate clergy refusing to cede power they seized 1,000 years ago. Just like they refuse to update the church’s teachings on human sexuality, in which they have little expertise and even less experience.
Will any of this change with a new pope? That’s most unlikely, for one reason: Sixty-seven of the 117 cardinals eligible to elect the next pope were appointed by Benedict XVI; and 50 were appointed by John Paul II. They’re all likely cut from the same clerical cloth. They’ll choose someone who thinks like Benedict XVI and John Paul II, and who will continue their efforts to roll back the reforms of the great John Paul XXIII and resist any new changes.
Expect a new face for the Catholic Church, but the same old, outdated policies.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.