The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has spurred discussions worldwide about the Catholic church and the direction in which it should move. In America, Catholicism is at a crossroads, wrote Marc Fisher:

As the church suddenly faces an unexpected transition, American Catholicism is shrinking in size and splitting into two often harshly opposing camps — growing more polarized in faith, just as the nation has divided itself politically and socially.
The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. church, along with its hard-line stands on celibate priests, homosexuality and ordaining women, have pushed many Americans away from the church, which is still the nation’s largest single denomination.

The prospect of a new pope provides a new focus for the world’s fourth-largest Catholic population, as Americans ask whether Catholicism will grow smaller but hew to traditional doctrine or follow its members as they adapt to a fast-changing society.

The latest surveys of American Catholics reveal sharp drops in weekly Mass attendance, a majority in support of legalizing same-sex marriage, and a large majority who say they do not look to the Vatican as the moral authority on sexual matters such as contraception, marriage and abortion, said William D’Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University and author of a national survey that has tracked Catholic attitudes for 25 years.

“The laity are saying, ‘We can work things out for ourselves, these are matters for our own conscience, not questions where we just follow what the church is demanding,’ ” he said.

The direction the Catholic Church will move in might be largely affected by whomever is elected to replace Benedict. Michelle Boorstein reported:

For centuries, the job of a pope was a relatively manageable affair. Candidates were largely Italian, the flock Western. One could even disappear from public, as Pope Pius XI did for a couple of years in the 1930s so people wouldn’t see that he’d been using a wheelchair. In the 13th century, the position was vacant for 31 / 2 years.

By contrast, the cardinals preparing to select a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI are seeking one whopper of a résumé. The role now calls for a spiritual figure able to inspire and unify a 1.1 billion-member global church that’s simultaneously booming and collapsing, and whose flock seems to agree on little. Management acumen is essential, Twitter fluency preferable. Hours: 24-7.

In some ways, the selection of a new pope will have more potential to influence the future of Catholicism than the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then 78, in 2005.

In the eight years since Pope Benedict took office, the divisions in the Catholic world have become more solidified. The West, including Europe and the United States, has been locked in a culture war over contraception, homosexuality and the role of women in the church, among other issues. Meanwhile, more theologically traditional Catholics in Africa and parts of Asia have fueled much of the church’s growth, threatening a standoff with Islam.

No matter who replaces Benedict, one thing is for certain: He will not be returning as the pope again. The Associated Press wrote:

The Vatican went out of its way Tuesday to declare that for Pope Benedict XVI, retirement means just that: Retirement.

With speculation swirling around his future role, the Vatican’s chief spokesman explicitly stated that Benedict will not influence the election of his successor. And he deepened the sense of finality by saying that Benedict’s papal ring and other powerful emblems of authority will be destroyed after his Feb. 28 abdication — just as they are after a papal death.

So, while the first papal resignation in 600 years has left behind a vast uncharted territory to navigate — how does one address or even dress a retired pope? — the church has tried to send a clear message that Benedict will not be pulling strings from behind the scenes. His brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, says the pope will be withdrawing even further from religious life — probably even giving up his beloved theological writing.

“The pope will surely say absolutely nothing about the process of the election,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters at a briefing. “He will not interfere in any way.”


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