Does the Pope's resignation matter to non-Catholics?

Like it or not, believe in it or not, Catholicism retains influence on our culture, our politics and our lives. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 24, 2013 — Almost two weeks after he announced it, news pages and Facebook feeds are still abuzz with Pope Benedict’s resignation. The world’s 1.3 billion Catholics received this news with a range of reactions, asking such questions as: Is the pope still infallible after retirement? What will happen to Cardinal Ratzinger? Who will the new pope be and what does that mean for my church?

We may regard this news with fascination, as the thick velvet curtain of the world’s third-wealthiest institution (after Harvard University and Microsoft) is briefly drawn aside, but does it matter to us if we aren’t Catholic? The Vatican is a fascinating, complex, opulent institution shrouded in historical secrets and arcane traditions. But do its political developments touch the lives of non-Catholics? Is the pope a mere figurehead, a politically impotent fashion plate like the British royal family, or is the papacy relevant beyond the Vatican’s shadow? Is this news really significant for non-Catholics beyond its entertainment value?

Consider the tenure of the last pope, John Paul II. John Paul’s star rose during a global media explosion. From the dawn of his papacy, the world saw the development of the Internet and cheaper, more efficient global transit. These two factors enabled the Pope to reach his followers in a personal, immediate way, becoming a central figure in their lives, and becoming visible to the world at large.

This visibility sparked many conversations about the relevance of religion in the modern age, especially when the institution at the center is riddled with such grandiose and enigmatic aesthetics as the Vatican. It raised awareness about the impact of religion on social policy concerning contraception, women’s rights, abortion, and LGBT civil rights.

Confronted with the spiritual and moral policies of the institution, non-Catholics became more literate on these matters for themselves, identifying with or taking offense at Vatican screeds on human bodies, human relationships, and human purpose.

Our vernacular shifted: Once the purview of Catholic in-jokers, now we all wisecrack about the “Popemobile,” red pontifical Prada slippers, and the amazing array of hats seen at any given Vatican gathering. Ribbing aside, the Vatican’s high visibility raises questions among all types of religious and seculars alike about religious politics and loyalty, and the meaning of faith, ritual, and religious hierarchies.

John Paul’s visibility was a factor in Europe’s political realignment. The election of a Polish Pope pushed the aegis of the Catholic Church into Eastern Europe. John Paul’s enormous prestige in Poland and abroad lent support and legitimacy to the Solidarity movement as it challenged Communist rule in Soviet-dominated Poland, and eventually to anti-Communist uprisings throughout Eastern Europe.

His fluency in eight languages - and his use of those languages during his constant globetrotting - increased the sense of a global Catholic community. His outreach to Muslims and Jews - John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the Western Wall or Rome’s central synagogue, and he officially recognized anti-Semitism as a sin, apologizing for Holocaust-era Catholic silence - created a popular impression that the Christian ecumenism of Vatican 2 had expanded to encompass interreligious tolerance.

John Paul II, the CEO of Catholicism Inc., restructured his curia (something like the Vatican’s board of directors) from an Italian clique into a multicultural, international administration. This was all good stuff.

Of course, there was plenty that John Paul II didn’t do: advance the status of women, homosexuals or children, duly punish clerical pedophiles, or reassess expired and deleterious policies on contraception. These omissions planted a seed in the newly heightened popular consciousness that the Vatican was not in touch with modern standards for human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps the Vatican was out of touch; exhortations about the importance of large, faithful families came from Rome even though the Italian birth rate is the lowest among the developed nations. Perhaps the Vatican was a little behind the times; this made sense, considering 2,000 years dragging on its books, not to mention professed higher allegiances and otherworldly concerns. The problem was that we doubted that the concerns of the Vatican translated into a truly heavenly kingdom or allegiances for all people.

John Paul II did not leave Benedict an easy legacy. Benedict, far less popular than the avuncular John Paul II from the very beginning, had more solemn tasks to face than a lack of popularity. Much of his papacy was absorbed by damage control and demands for repentance and institutional restructuring that were weightier, more international, and more interreligious than any pope before him has faced. Nothing he could have said or done would have diminished the horror that Catholics and non-Catholics alike felt when details about clerical child abuse scandals erupted in the US and in Europe.

There was less scandal and more cynicism when Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, stole the pope’s confidential correspondence, then leaked information about vicious internal struggles to a reporter who exposed to the world the bitter infighting that pressures the hand of God’s vicar. Pope Benedict will vacate the papacy with no small air of … resignation.

The non-Catholics most affected by Vatican happenings are those living in countries where secular legislation is affected by Catholic political agitation. In the Philippines, Catholic leaders are furiously resisting a new law granting access to contraceptives. The U.S., after several states approved gay marriage by democratic vote, saw a Catholic anti-gay marriage media blitz, confirming tensions between the Obama administration and U.S. Bishops (the bishops also dispute Obama’s healthcare plan because of its provision for contraception).

It is hard to see how our daily lives are affected by the motions of the United Nations, but the Vatican state - boasting a population which excludes all women, children and non-Catholics - bears special status at the UN and uses this platform to advance its own agenda on matters such as population growth, contraception, and the rights of women and gays.

So, how does Pope Benedict’s resignation affect non-Catholics? The Vatican has successfully suffused its moral stances and name brand into the most intimate and charged arenas of our personal and social lives. The Vatican is part of the life of anyone who has a television or an Internet connection, even if just to spark discussion about lifestyles, values, and the role of religion in our lives.

The new pope, no matter where he is from, will probably espouse the same social policies as his predecessor. After all, popes lead an enormous and ancient organization, and change comes very slowly to such entities, especially when they claim their policies and values come from God. Small policy changes, like John Paul’s condemnation of anti-Semitism, might trickle down to affect a Jewish-Catholic friendship or even a whole neighborhood.

Perhaps the most we can say about how Benedict’s resignation affects non-Catholics is that we must recognize that we’re fascinated and flummoxed by the prospect to begin with, enough to even question its bearing on or lives. Catholicism is inescapably on the western radar, pushing us to ask questions and make active choices, hopefully with increasing clarity as time goes on.



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Jenn Lindsay

Jenn Lindsay is an anthropologist and PhD student in the Religion Department at Boston University. She holds a Master of Divinity ('11) in Interfaith Relations and Ecumenics from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she was co-chair of the Interfaith Caucus and and the Minister of Fun. At BU, Jenn pursues the question of how religion affects personal relationships, particularly interreligious relationships. Her research has been based in Italy and Indonesia--studying personal relationships between people of different religions, particularly between Muslims and Catholics--and in Peru, where she studied how local spiritualities and Catholicism shape people’s interactions with the environment. Jenn hails from San Diego, CA, raised by a religiously eclectic family whose members draw from progressive Jewish, Christian Scientist, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, Hindu-based and secular humanist traditions. For a decade prior to attending Union Theological Seminary, Jenn worked in the film and music industries as a composer, film editor, performer and documentary filmmaker. Her nine albums are available on iTunes and at Jenn also studied playwriting at Stanford University ('01) and arts management at the Yale University School of Drama ('05).


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