Leaders: Pope’s brave decision best for the church

Pope Benedict XVI is to resign - the first Pope to do so since 1415. Picture: AP
Pope Benedict XVI is to resign - the first Pope to do so since 1415. Picture: AP
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WHATEVER the controversies that arose during his eight-year pontificate, no one can gainsay the courage of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, in laying aside pastoral leadership of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as a result of age and infirmity.

He has been criticised for being too conservative for these changing times, but in this one selfless act “God’s rottweiler” proved that ego and worldly ambition has never been part of his make-up. His was a lonely and a difficult decision and we should all – Catholic and Protestant, believer and non-believer – respect him the more for it.

Some traditionalists may be tempted to query Pope Benedict’s decision, believing that he was called to the throne of St Peter by Providence rather than any human hand. And it is certainly exceedingly rare for a pontiff to resign office voluntarily. Even the last example – in 1415 by Gregory XII – was more a case of jumping before being pushed. However, while the papacy is arguably the longest continuous human institution on the planet, it has never been unwilling to face a challenge. Within living memory, the notion of a non-Italian pope, or a pope who left the Vatican and travelled the world in jet airliners, would have been considered fanciful. And yet it came to pass under Benedict’s much-revered predecessor, John Paul II.

The organisational challenge now facing the Catholic Church in the 21st century is the sheer size of its flock. Religion, contrary to expectation, has not been swept away by science, consumerism or anything else. In 1950, the Catholic Church claimed 437 million members, most in Europe and America. Today it has three times that number – with more on the way, particularly in the southern hemisphere. If you consider there were barely 300 million souls on the whole planet when Saint Peter received the keys of his office, the leadership task facing the next and 263rd pope is daunting for any man.

The next pope also has a string of theological, moral and political challenges to meet, while taking his flock with him. He must do so in a world where communications are instantaneous and where complex judgments have to be rendered at the speed of the internet. We cannot know whether Pope Benedict XVI pondered such challenges before taking his decision.

Certainly, despite his age, he was not unresponsive to modern communications, starting a Twitter account only last year. However, we can say that the next pontiff must inhabit the social media and the 24-hour news cycle as his parish, or risk failure.

For more than 800 years the method of electing a pope has been by secret ballot. Surprisingly, this makes the papacy one of the oldest functioning democracies. When the College of Cardinals meets in the Sistine Chapel to elect the new pope, it must recognise that the Church needs a leader who is at home in the 21st century and up to the undoubted rigours of the job.

War of words is getting us nowhere

YESTERDAY brought a blizzard of position papers from the Yes and No camps. From Westminster, we were told an independent Scotland would be considered a new country and have to negotiate its way back into every international agency. Plausible, but can we really think Scotland will be rejected from the United Nations? If not, why is Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary,

labouring the point?

From the nationalist camp, we were told an independent Scotland would demand a 10 per cent share of the Bank of England to oversee a common pound. Yet, no-one in their right mind wants to break up free trade between Scotland and England and the common currency that underpins it. So why do the Nats want to fix something that isn’t broken? Besides, the UK electorate already owns 81 per cent of Royal Bank of Scotland and it makes no difference as to how the bank operates.

In this obscure war of words, no-one thought to examine the impact of the new “home care” rules announced by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

These cap what the elderly in England pay towards home care at “only” £75,000. But that is more than the “free” care offered in

devolved Scotland, which could yet lead to some northbound immigration.

Equally, there is no guarantee that a future Scottish Government will be in any fiscal position to maintain free care. It’s a common problem, requiring a common solution.

Contrary to Mr Moore, devolution is not an unalloyed success, which is why the constitutional question remains open.

On the other hand, the current dialogue of the deaf between the Yes and No camps – judging by these latest offerings – is taking us nowhere.