What on earth is a pope for? And why should it matter to the world who he is or what his talents are, so long as he is a good man and preaches the gospel?
On Tuesday, the cardinals will enter the papal conclave to discuss the problems of the Roman Catholic Church in the world and the kind of man best suited to tackle them.
Their debates will be shaped by the times. On the brink of the Second World War, they chose a diplomat pope, hoping in vain that he would bring a negotiated peace before conflict began. After Paul VI, an anxious reformer who had struggled with the sexual and other social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, they wanted a cheerful, uncomplicated, pastoral pope who would stress the need for prayer.
(Unfortunately, John Paul I, the "smiling Pope," lasted barely five weeks – the cardinals realized too late that they had chosen a man in fragile health. They next chose the young, physically robust cardinal who would become the papal superstar John Paul II.)
Sometimes, during a long papacy, the problems alter drastically. In the 1980s and 1990s, John Paul II had a hand in bringing down communism and ending the Cold War, which benefited East and West, Catholics and non-Catholics. He said, "The tree was already rotten. I just gave it a good shake." After the fall of communism, however, John Paul was fearful of the dark side of unrestrained capitalism and the growth of secularism and materialism, especially in his native Poland.
He was an example of the strong moral voice a pope can bring to global affairs, speaking truth to power even when governments choose to ignore his teachings. In 1991, I followed John Paul on a trip to Sicily, where he fearlessly denounced the corruption of the Mafia on their own territory. He was popular throughout the world, even among many not bound by Catholic beliefs.
Catholicism is nothing if not social, committed to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, antagonistic to the status quo. Catholicism is radical, communitarian, open to all cultures and ethnicities – hence "catholic," universal.
Yet, the great difficulty of every pope is that he is the final protector of traditional belief. The Catholic Church is evidently a conservative institution. It does not pander to the latest fads and fashions; it is vigilant over its traditions of belief and practice. It does not fall into the trap of believing that, unaided by grace, human nature is perfectible.
How can a pope – who, in combination with his bishops, is regarded as infallible in faith and morals – change course once he has proclaimed the dogma? And yet how can he not engage with the real world, the changes in society and politics, as well as scientific knowledge?
Hans Küng, the Swiss dissident Catholic theologian and former friend of Benedict XVI, has written of the papacy: "A change, indeed a radical revolution, has to come, given the present accumulation of problems."
Threats to the Church
A pope must try to protect the Church against threats of every kind, at the highest level.
There are many external threats to the Church today. In China, the regime has created a government-sponsored hierarchy of bishops in competition with those appointed by the Vatican. In parts of Africa, Catholic churches and their congregations are being targeted in Christian-Muslim conflicts. In the United States and Britain, many parts of the Church find themselves at odds with the papacy over equal-rights policies.
Yet, more than in any era since the Protestant Reformation, the pope who resigned last month has been deeply engrossed with internal rather than external threats to the Church.
High on the agenda is the clerical sexual-abuse scandal, still rocking the Church. The cardinals must choose someone who has had no executive or pastoral responsibilities for pedophile priests. But there is a danger that the clerical-abuse problem is obscuring deep internal structural problems that need urgent attention.
There are two major questions, on which a host of other issues depend: first, the scope and limits of the power of the pope and the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy); and next, what does it mean to be an authentic Catholic today?
At the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, it was decided that the pope should be less of a chief executive and more a judge of final appeal. Local bishops should have greater authority and discretion. It was called the principle of collegiality, or collective authority.
The first test of collegiality after Vatican II involved the Church's teaching on contraception, not long after the pill became available. The bishops wanted a relaxation of the rules. But Paul VI decided on his own conscience and sense of infallibility to confirm the ban on condoms and the pill.
For three decades, John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger – first as cardinal enforcer, then as pope – have stuck rigidly to the papal doctrine on birth control. At the same time, they have consistently clawed back powers from the bishops to the papal centre, weakening the autonomy of the local churches.
John Paul and Benedict, moreover, strenuously enforced a prerogative appropriated by the popes as recently in the Church's long history as 1917: It insists that only the pope can nominate new bishops. Local hierarchies, clergy and laypeople have no say in the matter. This has ensured the appointment of generations of papal yes-men, who tend to be weak and often disappoint the faithful. (Under John Paul and Benedict, no priest could hope to be elected who had questioned papal teaching on sexual issues.) It has also meant long delays in replacing bishops.
The centralization of papal and Vatican power and downgrading of bishops was a major reason for the failure to grapple with the pedophile-priest scandal. Decisions on defrocking were referred back to Rome. Both John Paul and Benedict believed that the scandal was cooked up by journalists and lawyers. When they could disregard it no longer, both cited Satan as the principal culprit. Abusing priests were allowed to reoffend and escape justice for years.
Second, there is the problem of true Catholic identity. According to the past two popes, it means strict adherence to Catholic doctrine, which forbids sex before marriage, using condoms or the pill, divorcing and remarrying without an annulment, living in a gay sexual relationship etc. – all of which, unrepented, condemn a person to hell.
Figures vary across the world, but, by papal standards, there are a great many Catholics "living in sin." And people are not going to confession as they once did: In the U.S., statistics show that only 2 per cent of the faithful go to confession nowadays. Yet, contrary to doctrine, most still receive the Eucharist at Mass. This means that there has been a deep and growing split between papal teaching and popular practice for decades.
John Paul appeared to ignore the dysfunction. Benedict, by contrast, knew what should be done: In interviews and writings, he declared that Catholics who were not prepared to follow the rules should leave the Church. As recently as last summer, he preached a sermon stating that those who dissented from Church teaching yet stayed within the Church were acting like Judas – the gravest sin that could be imagined.
He was not referring just to sex, but to priests and nuns who called for a married priesthood, or for a female priesthood. Likening the truly faithful Church to the Christians in the catacombs, "a faithful remnant," or the hot centre of a dying star, with the flotsam and jetsam of dissent in orbit around it, he expounded his preference for a smaller, totally loyal Church.
Papal teaching on "life" and sexual matters has had a profound effect not only on Catholics but on non-Catholic perceptions of the Church. The failure of the Roman centre to deal with the sexual-abuse scandals has eroded the Church's moral authority throughout the world. At the same time, the Church often appears out of touch on medical and scientific questions such as in vitro fertilization, HIV/AIDS prevention and embryonic stem-cell research.
I once interviewed an extraordinary cardinal archbishop in Milan, the late Maria Martini, who was one of the favourites at the last conclave. Rev. Martini said that, on the question of contraception, for example, the right use of language and theology should make it possible to maintain the Church's teaching against the "contraceptive mentality," while being more lenient on a couple's specific situation.
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.