He reminded me that, for 400 years, usury (lending at interest) had been considered a mortal sin, but the Church had been able to change its doctrine gradually without losing the spirit of the original principle – condemning wrongful exploitation.
There is no doubt that popes in the past have believed and acted as if the unity of the entire Church depends on them alone in a very real sense. Loyalty to the Holy Father is the one issue that unites Catholics, whatever they may think of him. To criticize him is to offend the most crucial taboo; love him or loathe him, every Catholic knows that he remains their best and only option for future unity.
Overwhelmed by the solitude of this papal role, Paul VI confided a private note to himself that might have been written by any of the popes in recent history: “My solitariness becomes complete and awesome. Hence the dizziness, the vertigo. Like a statue on a plinth – that is how I live now.” He went on to comment that he has to “decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others, even when it seems illogical and perhaps absurd.”
There are great dangers in this isolation, which the great 19th-century theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman recognized. He wrote of elderly popes who have been too long in office: “It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.”
Pius IX became so hated among the people of Rome that, in 1881, a gang tried to throw his body into the River Tiber as it was being drawn to its resting place.
Many popes become addicted to their power. Pius XII, the wartime pope, was so keen to protract his reign that he took rejuvenation injections provided by a doctor in Switzerland, Paul Niehans, who was similarly treating Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia.
This is what makes the resignation of Benedict so unusual. It is an enormous departure from the past. It means that the next pope will have an emeritus pope in the background who is aware of the isolated and isolating problems of the papacy. There may come a day when popes will have a limited period in office, and there could be several retired popes, just as there are several retired presidents of the United States. They may no longer wield power, but they can offer advice and sympathy.
Much depends on the next pope, not just for the Church but for the wider world. If the Catholic Church falters and fragments, a crucial alternative moral voice in the world is lost.
Uppermost in the cardinals’ minds this week will be the crisis in the Church over centralization of power versus distribution of power. A conservative pope is unlikely to embark on a reform of papal and Vatican power, which has weakened the Church at its periphery. Yet, a liberal pope could find himself residing over fragmentation and disunity.
Worse, an ultra-conservative pope would probably move to exclude those many millions of Catholics who refuse to abide by the Church’s teachings. And a recklessly progressive pope could prompt the voluntary self-exclusion of many groups of traditionalists, which happened with the so-called Society of Pius X, the splinter Catholic group that found fault with the reforms of Vatican II.
So the Church is on the horns of a dilemma.
One North American bishop, John Quinn, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has usefully drawn a parallel between the need for decentralization in the Church and the precedent of internal organizations such as the International Red Cross: Central control becomes counterproductive and propels the institution toward entropy and disintegration, as opposed to empowering every level to take responsibility for what they can contribute to a common direction.
The new pope has a herculean task before him. He must try to redeem the Church from the huge damage to its reputation because of clerical sexual abuse, while addressing, as far as possible, the harm done to their victims. He must try to heal the divisions between liberal and conservative Catholics, which have reached a peak of vitriol in recent years. And he must try to devolve a measure of authority to the bishops of the world, while ensuring reasonable central control over limited essentials.
As the cardinals pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I guess they will be praying with more than special fervour this time.
John Cornwell, a fellow of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, is best known for his books on the papacy, most notably Hitler’s Pope. His most recent book is Newman’s Unquiet Grave.