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Papacy in Transition

Interviewee: James P. McCartin, Director, Center on Religion and Culture, Fordham University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR
February 11, 2013

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A leading Catholic scholar says that he believes that Pope Benedict XVI's resignation announcement was spurred, to a large extent, by his close relationship to the late Pope John Paul II, whose last years were marred by very serious illnesses. James P. McCartin, director of Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture, says that "he saw close up what could happen to the church if a pope is less physically able to undertake his duties." He says that Pope Benedict, known as a conservative when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, succeeded in reconciling some Catholic conservatives who had rebelled against Vatican II (1962-1965). McCartin also points out that the pontiff was more liberal than people expected, as evidenced by his positions on the environment and the economy.

How surprised were you by the announcement from the Vatican today that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down at the end of February?

I was moderately surprised. There has been talk about this over the past few years. The pope had wanted to at least think about possibly setting a precedent for this to happen. Knowing that he was very close to Pope John Paul II [who died in 2005] as he approached the end of his life, I think he saw close up what could happen to the church if a pope is less physically able to undertake his duties. Given the fact that this has been talked about to some extent and that he had the experience of seeing the previous pope dying over the course of years, I wasn't terribly surprised. I was moderately surprised.

For those who are not that familiar with church history, how long was John Paul II in office?

From 1978 until 2005. He had Parkinson's and some other debilitating diseases on top of that [toward the end of his life].

I'm stunned by the fact that he would choose to resign in the middle of one of the busiest seasons of the year in the run up to Easter. It strikes me as very interesting that he wouldn't just finish out Easter and then resign.

Were you surprised by the timing of the pope's announcement?

What surprises me most of all about this was that he's resigning in the middle of Lent. Now Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, two days from now. It's a six week period leading up to Easter. I'm stunned by the fact that he would choose to resign in the middle of one of the busiest seasons of the year in the run up to Easter. It strikes me as very interesting that he wouldn't just finish out Easter and then resign. These cardinals have a lot to do during Lent and they now have to go to Rome and maybe spend a week or two there electing a new pope in the middle of Lent!

Pope Benedict XVI was a controversial pick at the time of his election. Explain why.

Well, he was controversial at the time for two reasons. The first is he spent twenty-five years as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the head of a Vatican organization called the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which, under his leadership, cracked down on a number of theologians around the world who were seen as left-leaning or liberal. He was also controversial because in the run up to the papal election, he gave a very important homily or sermon about the problem of secularization in the church. He positioned himself as a man who would be in opposition to the contemporary currents of the world, very much in opposition to the rise of more secular ideologies and ways of approaching moral issues.

How did he turn out? Did his reputation follow him everywhere? Did he turn out to be as conservative as people either wanted, or didn't want?

Yes and no. It's one of these interesting questions. On the one hand, in terms of liturgy, I think he's seen as a champion by people who are advocates of a return to a pre-Vatican II (1962-65) style of the mass. He made it more possible to celebrate the Latin liturgy that was used prior to Vatican II, when vernacular languages were allowed.

How did he do that? He allowed more churches to use Latin?

Yes. He allowed more churches to use Latin without the need of special permission, to celebrate the old liturgy. The other trait, which people who are of a more conservative bent liked about him, is that he has worked very hard to accommodate a number of groups in the church who were angered by some of the trends emerging from Vatican II, in particular a group called the Society of St. Pius X. It's an organization that rejects [many of the] modernizing elements of Vatican II, its openness to people of other faiths, changes in the liturgy, openness to the notion of religious liberty. So he has gone a long way in making it possible, though this has not been completed, to making it possible for people of that sort of stripe to come back into the church of Rome fully. They had been viewed as schismatic, and were excommunicated in the 1980s. So he's gone a long way in making it possible for them to return.

On the other hand, Pope Benedict has been embraced by people of a less traditionalist, more liberal bent because of what he has said about the environment and economic injustice. The need, for example, for modern governments to look after the needs of the poor, and not just ordinary citizens looking after the poor. So, he has had this interesting mix that you often find amongst popes. John Paul II was in some ways the same kind of mix, pleasing to traditionalist on the one hand and pleasing to progressives on the other.

Explain the new liturgy that went into effect last year.

It is a new translation of the Latin text that made the English language mass, as it's celebrated in the English speaking world, more literal to the Latin text. There had been translations to the Latin liturgy from earlier decades that was regarded by more traditionalist parties in the church, as not faithful enough to the Latin text. And so, the new English language translation is a more literal translation.

Of course in the United States and in Ireland, when the church is mentioned in the press, it's often in the context of priests' sexual violations. How did he handle that whole problem?

Well, he took a step that was very significant in seeing to it that the head of an organization called the Legion of Christ, a man by the name of Marcial Maciel Degollado, was relieved of his leadership duties in that organization. In doing that, Pope Benedict sent a signal that the Church would not abide even people of great power within the church if they committed sexual abuse or took advantage of others. It was said that Maciel not only abused children, but also seminarians. It was really a watershed moment. The Pope saw to it that Maciel was removed from his leadership of a congregation he founded, the Legion of Christ. So, I think we probably won't know until ten, fifteen, twenty years out, how significant his leadership was on issues of sexual abuse.

I wouldn't be surprised if we got a pope from the Spanish-Portuguese speaking Latin American world.

People have been saying that the Church should really reach out more to the developing world where there are millions of Catholics. Will that be the case with the choosing of the next pope?

I don't think you can tell. I remember last time around when folks were trying to figure out who would be elected pope, Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga from Honduras was seen as a possible candidate for the papacy and I remember seeing him in an interview shortly after Benedict was elected and he seemed sort of crestfallen. There are many others in the Americas. So I wouldn't be surprised either way. I wouldn't be surprised if we got a pope from the Spanish-Portuguese speaking Latin American world.

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