VATICAN CITY — Papal conclaves historically created mystical figures, men transformed by divine authority into heirs of Saint Peter. But as 115 cardinals begin deliberations Tuesday to pick the next pope, observers say any successor to Benedict XVI is set to step into an office demystified by scandal and early retirement.
In other words, the magic might be gone from being pope.
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.
Benedict’s retirement “does something to, as you might put it, demystify the papacy,” the Rev. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, recently told Vatican Radio. “The pope is not like a sort of God king who goes on to the very end. The ministry of service that the bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service, and it’s therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand.”
Some of the leading contenders to succeed Benedict have already proven themselves adept at delivering messages by less lofty means. Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle tools around the streets of Manila on a bike, while Brazilian hopeful Cardinal Odilio Scherer is a diehard social media fanatic who rides Sao Paulo’s subways and pops up on late-night talk shows. If the next pope is more willing to play to the fast-moving age of the 24-hour news cycle — papal press conferences, anyone? — he may only reaffirm the status of modern popes as anything but mystical.
That could be healthy, church officials say, because it would refocus the faithful not on a man but on an office in the service of God. Many in the church are deeply uncomfortable with the notion that popes are nearly divine, noting that their powers of infallibility are limited to specific issues of religious doctrine and are very rarely exercised.
“The pope stepping down has taken some of the magical thinking away,” said one senior Vatican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The day before he stepped down it was still unfathomable, but three hours after, people were already talking about it as reasonable and sensible. If his goal was to bring reasonable, sensible thinking into the institution, he did.”
Yet the same official conceded a measure of concern in Vatican City about the long-term impact of a papal resignation on the office. Some wonder whether future popes might see the office as a temporary job and eventually enter a sort of lame-duck period after a few good years.
“People are worried that part of the smoke-and-mirrors effect is lost,” the official said. “It creates serious theological problems and reduces the magic. If it becomes normal, do you have the danger of a sort of second-term presidency?”
Benedict’s decision to remain in Vatican City with the title pope emeritus could further undermine the office. The church has long taught of a singular authority in the Vatican. Now it will need to sell the notion of two popes — one reigning and one retired, both wearing papal whites — in Sunday schools and services.
“Americans tend to want to pray directly to God, but in some places, like Latin America, like Italy, you have a kind of padrone culture where someone intercedes for you because you’re almost afraid to go to the top directly — in this case, God,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst in Rome for the National Catholic Reporter. “So they pray to the pope because the Holy Father is seen as having an inside channel to God.”
Benedict’s decision to stick around is “a terrible mistake,” Reese said. “I think this is just going to be too confusing for some people.”
Others say the papacy may simply be returning — as it has in various points in the millennial history of the church — to a time when power was less concentrated in the hands of one man. Before the year 1,000, most Catholics were hard pressed to even name the sitting pope. One side effect of a more down to earth papacy could be greater decentralization, with bishops enjoying more power to conduct church business in their countries as they see fit.
Benedict, some say, had already been moving to demystify the office before his shocking retirement announcement. Upon winning the papacy, instead of being crowned, he opted for a conferral of the pallium, a humbler vestment made of wool that is a reference to Christ the good shepherd, who carried sheep on his shoulders. Benedict also wasn’t a big fan of the rock-star-like stadium masses that came to define the papacy of his predecessor, John Paul II.
“And maybe that’s a good thing,” said Richard R. Gaillardetz, the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. “This idea of mystification of popes is a pretty modern phenomenon, going back only about 130 to 150 years. It’s okay when it’s symbolic, but it becomes unhealthy when we attribute to the pope far more authority and reverence than is really warranted by our tradition.”
Jason Horowitz contributed to this report.