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Q&A with Dr. Douglas Porpora: The Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI startled the world Monday when he announced he would resign at the end of February. Eighty-five-year-old Benedict, a spiritual leader to nearly two billion Roman Catholics, said his resignation is due in part to diminishing strength and advanced age.

“Both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” Benedict said, according to his declaration released by the Vatican.

Benedict’s announcement marks the first resignation of a pope in more than 600 years. In light of his historic declaration, DrexelNow caught up with Dr. Douglas Porpora, a professor of sociology with research interests in religion, to discuss the influence of the papacy, Benedict’s legacy and what the future holds for the Catholic Church.

Does Benedict's decision to step down say anything about the troubled state of the Catholic Church?

Certainly, the Catholic Church has been losing membership, which we see in this country, partly obscured by Latino immigrants, but also in Latin America. Certainly, there is a shortage of clergy and vocations. And then there is the whole sex abuse scandal. So it is fair to say the church is in trouble.

I am not sure the pope's announcement, though, reflects any of that. Perhaps a more central question is whether the new pope will continue in the direction of Benedict and John Paul II in rolling back Vatican II and re-establishing a more entrenched, conservative church. Liberal American nuns are currently being disciplined for neglecting more conservative issues like birth control and opposition to gay marriage in favor of peace and justice issues. Will such trends continue with new pope? It’s likely, since the College of Cardinals has already been stacked in a conservative direction. But God works in strange and surprising ways.

What is the importance of a pope's influence as opposed to other religious leaders?

Well, for Catholics, he is the “official boss” on Earth, and what he dictates more or less goes. So if the church tilts too much to the right, many left Catholics may ultimately feel it necessary to leave. Catholicism is actually not monolithic as an example of nuns illustrates, but the church hierarchy is still pretty powerful and determines the overall direction of the church. In addition, as the leader of one of the largest religious denominations in the world, the pope is a very visible religious figure who commands attention beyond the Catholic community.

What aspects of Benedict’s papacy will mark his legacy?

Before he was pope, Benedict headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (same entity that ran the Inquisition), in which capacity he directed the church and previous pope in a very conservative direction. As pope, however, he has been low-key. His third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is a social encyclical addressing global social and economic issues. [It] had some leftist elements that stirred both interest and controversy and will continue to stimulate discussion.

What is the significance of his stepping down?

Well, it is quite sudden and uncommon, but then popes in the past did not live as long. The question is whether the church is ready for this transition—and what kind of pope might succeed. As I say, the cardinals are stacked in a conservative direction, so no openly liberal successor is likely—probably no one from the U.S. We may be due for an African pope, which are generally very conservative.