NORMAN — Pope Benedict XVI has reshaped the papacy simply by giving it up. But how?
As the first pontiff in six centuries to step down, Benedict has carved a new path for his successors who decide they cannot rule for life. But scholars say the repercussions could reach beyond just changing how pontiffs leave to ultimately shape perceptions about the authority and significance of the pontificate.
“A lot of what it will mean has to do with what subsequent popes do. Does this become a precedent for future popes to follow or not?” said Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.
Benedict’s pontificate will end at 8 p.m. Thursday. He plans no role in the conclave that will choose the next pontiff, and will retreat to a life of prayer in a monastery behind Vatican walls. His decision shocked the church. But papal resignations are expected to become more likely over time because of extended lifespans and the growing demands of the pontificate, Thompson said.
Travel is now a major responsibility due largely to the globe-trotting example of Pope John Paul II. Shepherding the 1.1 billion faithful requires constant contact through the Internet. These days, Catholics far from the Holy See can watch the weekly general audience, ask the pope questions on Twitter and pray in real time along with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. As a result, staying on until death can mean a very public decline. John Paul, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other health troubles, could no longer walk or talk when he died in 2005 at age 84.
The pope is regarded as a teacher, an international diplomat and an administrator, but he is also the vicar of Christ — a leader with a divine mission. Benedict’s retirement raised fears that the pontificate could be viewed as less holy. Some questions have even focused on the much misunderstood Catholic teaching on papal infallibility: With two popes, one emeritus and one in power, who will have the final say? In fact, infallibility applies to the office, not the person, and only when a pope invokes apostolic authority to define doctrine or morals for the entire church.