For the most devout, the figure of the pope spoke with a nearly preternatural voice, vesting him with a transcending influence when, for instance, John Paul II called for the end of communism in the former Eastern bloc. But more than at any other point in recent history, Vatican watchers say the papacy has been brought back down to earth by Benedict’s unprecedented decision to step down and revelations of financial corruption in the Vatican and clergy sexual misconduct.
All of this could lead to a possible transformation for both the office of pope and the Roman Catholic church he leads.
In the modern era, papal adoration reached new heights with Pope Pius XII, who was the first pontiff to go global through television and, in devout Catholic households of the 1940s and 1950s, came to be viewed as something akin to a living saint. Over the next 50 years, a series of popes began cautiously curbing the cult of the papacy, eschewing showy coronations and the bejeweled papal tiara that seemed to fuel their exaltation as something more than a man. In December, Benedict even began to tweet.
Yet the rich, almost theatrical traditions surrounding the office largely remained. The sacred politicking to pick the next pope enters its final phase Tuesday, when a shout in Latin “extra omnes” — everyone else, out! — will lead to the cardinals being barred inside the Sistine Chapel for the start of the highly secretive conclave.
Though days of preliminary deliberations have been officially kept under wraps, the chatter around the Holy See suggests a tug of war between the Roman Curia — the Vatican administration — looking to safeguard the status quo and reformers who want a strong hand capable of shaking things up.
No matter who wins, however, the nature of the papacy may have already changed. The hierarchy is reeling from scandal. Just as important, the numinous aura of the office has been altered by the decision of Benedict to step down, appearing to dispel the otherworldly quality of popes as divinely picked to serve for life.
For a church that in the 21st century is still declaring miracles, the earthly grounding of popes could pose a challenge to its ministry in parts of the world where pontiffs are still viewed with adoring reverence. To restore a sense of permanence to the office, some in the church are calling for the next pontiff to make one of his first acts a public declaration to serve until death.
Still, the precedent sent by a papal resignation could open the door to something heretofore seen as an oxymoron: a modern papacy, with the Holy Father as chief executive under constant pressure to perform or step down. Some argue the next pope will be more beholden to the board (his global prelates) and the shareholders (the 1.2 billion faithful) of Catholics Inc. than ever before.