The world and the Catholic Church have changed, or maybe they’ve just become more honest. In the pews of Roman Catholic churches around the world — less crowded than they used to be — there is devotion, but also doubt. Now there is also confusion about what kind of leader the next pope will be.

Pope Benedict XVI is retiring to a life of prayer and contemplation, and who can blame him? The Vatican, which once seemed its own world, cloaked in incense and protected by the distinctively dressed Swiss Guard, is also a place of political intrigue, as revealed by letters the butler leaked.

Pope Benedict was more demanding of accountability than his charismatically blessed predecessor Pope John Paul II on the issue of sexual abuse by clergy, though not enough to clear a church rocked by this overwhelming sin. And he was humble enough to realize his own infirmity prevented him from managing what is a very big job, a virtue for which he is being given some credit.

(Gregorio Borgia, file/Associated Press) Pope Benedict XVI, shown here celebrating Christmas Mass in 2008, has said he will step down, making way for a new leader of the Catholic Church.

It must have been frustrating for Pope Benedict; his timing in ascending to the chair of St. Peter was not the best. Secrets and hypocrisy that always marred a carefully protected image spilled out in the open and into his lap.

Echoing the political divisions in society, the church seemed split in two, social conservatives on one side and those espousing the causes of social justice on the other. One side is arguing for inclusion of dissenters who would mix faith with criticism, the other for a smaller, purer church of true believers, followers of strict orthodoxy.

Bishops objecting to President Obama’s health-care policies on birth control coverage stand as gatekeepers, representatives of one side. Nuns on the bus, preaching understanding and care for the poor, place other causes at the forefront as they work closer to the ground.

In 2012 presidential politics, Catholic vice presidential candidates on opposing tickets lined up the way you would expect.

Yet as cardinals contemplate the next pope and the church’s renewal, as Easter appropriately approaches, are the sides so far apart? As my colleague Melinda Henneberger pointed out, those expecting changes in the church’s opposition to gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination from the next man in charge – and it will, of course, be a man – will be waiting a long time.

Spiritual and earthly bonds keep 1.2 billion in the world identifying as Catholic, united by common causes, from the belief that life begins at conception to the ministries that house and feed the homeless.

But Catholics can no longer deny or ignore the world outside.

As a cradle Catholic with 16 years of parochial education and a name, Mary Cecelia, that trails rosary beads, it’s a church I couldn’t run away from and won’t be pushed out of. The refuge, though, at times becomes a battlefield, even in the Charlotte, N.C., church where I have shared in the utter joy of a Mass that shines a light on members of the “disABILITY” ministry as they play the music, read the Scriptures and assist at the altar.

It’s where the pastor last year resembled a reluctant captive in a hostage video as he read a message after the gay music director was fired for going out of state to marry his longtime partner. This happened at a time when North Carolina was battling over an amendment to its constitution on the definition of marriage. Our pastor said he was performing his duty “in communion with the teachings of the Church and in union with our bishop,” and parishioners sympathized with him as well as the dismissed music director. Some choir members left, becoming roamin’ Catholics looking for answers and a new home at another parish. Others stayed.

And one confronted me for even daring to write about it. Hasn’t the church learned any lessons from keeping secrets? I asked him, argument invading the quiet, sacred space I had constructed.

Now a new pope will take over the Catholic Church in a political world with dissenting voices, and try to satisfy those who would be faithful but not silent.

It won’t be the new church that many would like to see. However I can’t imagine it going back.


Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3