On 24 April 2005, millions flocked to Vatican City for the Papal Inauguration Mass, shouting jubilantly “Habemus Papum!” which means, “We have a Pope!” Since February 11th, millions more have been faced with the reality that Papum non habemus! (We do not have a Pope!) Pope Benedict XVI announced the resignation of his title as Pope, being the first leader of the Catholic Church to do so since 1415. The Pope’s decision to step down raises considerable concern—not only for devout Catholics, but also for non-Catholics like me who wonder, “Why is this such a big deal?” and, “What are the implications of this?” If the Pope’s resignation itself hadn’t been big enough news, it has recently come to light after Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that his resignation is perhaps in response to yet another sex scandal—this time involving high ranking clergy officials allegedly being blackmailed by male prostitutes in Rome. This provokes fundamental questions regarding the moral integrity and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Finally, the most pressing matter is that of Papal succession.  The College of Cardinals is now faced with the enormous task of appointing the new face, the new leader, and the future of the Catholic Church.

Image courtesy of Rvin88, © 2008, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Rvin88, © 2008, some rights reserved

 On February 11 Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, claiming the reason was old age and poor health. He admitted that he was no longer capable of leading the world’s 1 billion Catholics and needed to step down as Pope:

“Both strength of mind and body are necessary, 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. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom, I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St Peter.”

Pope Benedict XVI was inaugurated in 2005 at the age of 78—the oldest candidate to be appointed since the 18th Century. His career has largely been defined (and criticised) by his management of various sexual abuse cases within the Church, yet he has advocated adequately for the necessary changes that needed to be addressed by the Church, particularly at the dawn of his papal term. Regardless of how his role as Pope will be assessed, his resignation is big deal. First of all, his decision to step down as leader of the Catholic Church brings attention the fact that the papacy is actually just a job.  The Pope can decide that he is too old and tired for his job. He can retire, and for the first time in almost 600 years, he did.

Considering that a Pope has not retired in six centuries might also shed light on the fact that there is probably an underlying agenda or movement. Popes are not picked at random from the general pool of nearly a billion global Catholics, they are appointed by and from within the College of Cardinals. To be a candidate you have to be a high ranking and long time serving member of the clergy devoted to the Catholic Church. In light of this, it is hard to believe that the Pope would abruptly decide he is too old and tired to be the Pope anymore—it is a position one normally carries until death.

According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, there is a scandalous reason behind the Pope’s resignation. On Thursday February 21, La Repubblica published information suggesting that around the time that the Pope decided to step down, the Pontiff learned that a faction of allegedly gay Prelates (high ranking clergy) in the Vatican might be subject to blackmail from a group of male prostitutes in Rome. This source of this information is a 300-page report published by three cardinals that the Pope commissioned to investigate regarding the publication of private documents revealed by his butler. The Vatican hasn’t explicitly commented on the truthfulness of La Repubblica’s statement, but their outrage is apparent—accusing the media and foreign governments of tarnishing the Church’s image and interfering with the Cardinal’s task of appointing a new candidate. While the alleged sex scandal involving Prelates does add more drama to the Pope’s resignation, his work with the Catholic Church has been burdened with sex abuse cases since before he became Pope. Beginning in 1980 with priest Peter Hullermann’s acts of pedophilia, Father Lawrence Murphy’s alleged molestation of more than 200 children in 1996 and in 2010, the Pope’s rejection of two Irish priests’ resignation for admittedly covering up sex abuse cases in Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI has consistently mitigated sex scandals in the Catholic Church. If the story that La Repubblica published were in fact true, why would this, in light of three decades of sex abuse cases, bring the Pope to resign?

Perhaps this scandal was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Benedict XVI, but what fundamentally remains is that the next Pope will have to lead the Catholic Church not only out of the darkness of a marred past, but into a future of an increasingly secular European community. It is increasingly recognised that the majority of Catholics now reside in the developing world. Forty percent of Catholics are South American and numbers are increasing across Africa. Perhaps this is the Vatican’s opportunity to steer the Church’s future into a brighter and more realistic one—one that addresses the fact that Europe is no longer their centre of gravity. Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson is a main candidate for the papacy and his election could possibly become the biggest success the Church has seen in decades. Despite Turkson’s appeal and popularity, and the fact that most Catholics are no longer European, more than half of the 118 cardinals are. Time will tell what is to be revealed by the Vatican’s next appointment—as a step away from the past, towards a better future.