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Pope’s Resignation Broken Down

UCSB Scholar Stefania Tutino Gives Insight, Explanation, Reaction


Monday, February 18, 2013

When the announcement was made last week that Pope Benedict XVI would soon resign his post, we reached out to UCSB scholar Stefania Tutino for her interpretation of the unusual and surprising move. Tutino, a professor of Catholic Studies in the departments of History and Religious Studies, offered these unedited answers to 10 emailed questions.

Pope Benedict XVI
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Pope Benedict XVI

We hear a lot about the Pope being an arch-traditionalist leaving in a most untraditional manner. What do you make of that? Is this a case of a cigar sometimes being just a cigar, or is there deeper significance? This Pope is indeed a “traditionalist” Pope, and there is no question about the fact that resigning from the Papacy is, if not unique, certainly a very rare occurrence. There have been rumors for a while now concerning the possibility that the Pope might resign, but when the announcement actually came it was certainly somewhat of a shock. There have also been rumors as to why he decided to do it (e.g. because of an illness), even though Vatican authorities have denied it. I personally think that it is certainly true that the Pope’s health hasn’t been good as of lately, and that his Papacy had to face a number of crises in the past few months which have been growing more and more (of course a prime example of this is the child abuse scandal). Also, there has been an internal crisis in the Vatican recently, with the Pope and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (the Cardinal Secretary of State) not seeing eye to eye on many important matters. Finally, Benedict XVI, unlike his predecessor, did not enjoy, so to speak, the more public aspects of being Pope — Benedict XVI is more of a scholar than a “great communicator.” So while his decision is certainly remarkable, it is not so difficult to explain once you see this larger context involving both his personal profile and the larger issues surrounding the Church right now.

There's a tendency to see the weight of the child abuse scandal as a motivating factor in the Pope's announcement. Your thoughts? The child abuse scandal is certainly something that characterized the Papacy of Benedict XVI in a remarkable (and remarkably negative) manner, given that Benedict XVI has been personally involved in it not just as Pope, but also as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (which he was prior to becoming Pope) and even before then, during the time he lived in Germany. It is also undeniable that during his Papacy the scandal, far from fading out from the spotlight, has kept on growing, in part because so far the Church has not found a way to deal with it as definitive and satisfactory as many people, both inside and outside the Church, wished. Having said that, it is hard to guess what motivated the Pope’s personal decision to resign, but we rather should see the resignation as part of the complex scenario I sketched above.

The Pope's legacy where child abuse is concerned appears deeply mixed, but ultimately a case of too little too late. How do you assess his role? What did he do that he's not given adequate credit for? And what didn't he do that he should have done a long time ago? This is a complex question. I would say two things. On the one hand, in a sense it is without a doubt “too little too late” because when we think about the horrifying proportion of this scandal, when we think about the horrifyingly high number of clergymen involved in it, and when we think about the horrifying failure to stop the abuses, then of course we must conclude that the Pope and in general the Church hierarchy did not do enough. On the other hand, people tend to underestimate the theological, ecclesiological, and also doctrinal rigidity of the structure of the Church. What I mean by this is that people tend to think that the Pope alone can make “executive decisions” and change sharply the way in which the Church runs if he sees that a change is needed, much like, say, the CEO of a corporation or even the president of the U.S.A. The Catholic Church, however, does not work like that. Thus, while personally I think that the Pope, insofar as he is the head of the Church, bears the ultimate responsibility for the horror of the child abuse scandal, we should be mindful of the fact that the Pope as an individual is constrained in a number of ways regarding what he can and what he cannot do. Also, personally I think that in addition to holding this or that person responsible (which of course we should do whenever an individual is responsible for a specific act), all of us, and not just the more than one billion people who identify themselves as Catholic, should really reflect [on] the role and significance of the institutional rigidity of the Church, on whether such rigidity can in fact be sustained in the future, and whether or not it can allow Catholicism to engage with not just this dramatic issue, but with modern secular values in general.

Benedict clearly had some impossible shoes to fill. In your mind, does he have a legacy of his own? What do you see as his most significant accomplishments? I think that it might be too early to assess his legacy right now. However, I think that we will all have to reckon with his doctrinal radicalism and his distinctive take on the relationship between the Church and secular modernity, and of course with the consequences, some of them dramatic, of his positions. Also, we should not forget that he was an important theologian and scholar, and his theological scholarship will be at the center of the scholarly debate for a while.

Much has been made of his remarks about condoms, especially in Africa. How do you assess his position on condoms and AIDS especially in Africa, and to what extent did that do damage with the faithful there? I think that the Pope’s position on condoms is a perfect example of what I referred to before, i.e. the Pope’s doctrinal radicalism and its dramatic consequences. People need to realize that if you are an orthodox Catholic, then sexual activity is a function of procreation, thus making it impossible for any orthodox Catholic to endorse the use of condoms (at least without a great deal of qualification). If, on the other hand, you look at the world and you consider the responsibility that you, as a human being, have toward your fellow human beings, then you have the absolute duty (as far as I personally see it) to fight for the right, in this case, of African people to protect themselves from AIDS by taking advantage of modern medicine and science. This is really the dramatic conflict here: on the one hand a theological radicalism that makes it impossible to endorse condoms, and on the other hand the ethical responsibility, as a human being, to fight for the rights of your fellow human beings which in this case demands that you endorse the use of condoms. Benedict XVI saw the need to be coherent with respect to orthodox Catholicism as the single most important guiding ethical principle, and he was not able to think of a different way to balance his faith with other ethical issues. Whether this hurts the Church or not will depend on what kind of Church one wants and on what kind of Church one gets.

If you are not a Catholic and were not raised Catholic, why is news of Benedict's resignation a big deal? The Catholic Church is an authority that everybody needs to reckon with, and not just the more than one billion Catholics in the world. The Catholic Church is politically and socially very influential even in the secular U.S.A., as the recent debates on gay marriages and on abortion testify. In addition, the Catholic Church today is a global powerhouse. In a time in which we all need to understand and cope with the effects of globalization, the change in leadership in the Catholic Church is a big deal, because it has the potential of influencing the social, political, and cultural life not just of its members, but indeed of the whole globalized world.

The conventional wisdom holds that Benedict selected his bishops so carefully that his successor will be as conservative as he was and that people looking for someone to loosen the grip of traditional church orthodoxy better look elsewhere. Do you agree? I do not agree. Again, people tend to think that the Church works like Congress or the Senate, and this is not quite the case. The Conclave (the group of Cardinals who will elect the new Pope) is right now composed of 117 members, of which a little more than 50 percent have been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. In order for the Pope to be elected, a 2/3 majority is needed. Also, we should remember that a Pope appoints Cardinals not simply because he needs “political” backing, or because he needs an “ally” for this or that issue. Rather, since the Catholic Church is, as I said, a gigantic and globalized powerhouse, when a Pope appoints Cardinals he needs to take into account this global context, not simply Papal politics. That does not mean, however, that Ratzinger doesn’t have his “favorites,” and some of them are going to be voting. But this does mean that a Papal election is much more interesting than, say, Congress approving a bill, precisely because different, conflicting, and global interests are at play. In sum, I would say that there are a number of different directions that the Conclave can go right now, and I for one am incredibly anxious and excited to see how things will pan out.

What’s your reaction to the fact that Cardinal Mahony will be voting? And to what extent did Gomez's rebuke of Mahony two weeks ago reflect the hand of Pope Benedict? If we take into account the doctrinal and ecclesiological rules that govern the Church, Mahony, in a sense, has no choice in the matter, because both theology and canon law require him to vote in the Conclave. On the other hand, I certainly understand those who believe that it would be more decent, just, and respectful that he recuse himself. Again, this is the dilemma I was talking about before, i.e. that sometimes the rigidity of the theological and ecclesiological structure of the Church is at odds with what most people consider just, decent, and sensible. As for Gomez’s action, I think it reflects the fact that the Catholic Church is trying, so to speak, “to do the right thing.” Pope Benedict, like many other Church leaders, is fully aware that the Church needs to deal with the abuse scandal firmly and, as I was saying, the Church is taking some steps in this direction.

I got a call from a crazy guy exclaiming over the fact that lightning struck St. Peter's the day Benedict made his announcement. I know it happened, but your reaction? My reaction is like yours: it was a crazy guy! The interesting thing for me is that the Catholic Church is still such a mysterious and fascinating institution today that people would go on thinking that a thunderstorm is actually a sign of God (and, by the way, Angels and Demons WAS a bestseller after all!!)

In the secular West, we hear how the conservative doctrine of Benedict is chasing people away from the Church. To what extent is that really true and to what extent are any such losses offset by gains elsewhere where such orthodoxy might be re-assuring? I think that right now the Catholic Church is at a crucial moment in terms of defining its identity. The West is indeed more and more secularized: the data we have indicate that Catholicism is declining in the West, and especially among whites and the middle and upper class. This is due in part to social and demographic factors (in fact changes in demography in certain parts of the West might invert this tendency), and in part to the fact that the values of secular Western society are somewhat at odds with some of the Catholic orthodox values. Africa and South America, on the other hand, are places where the Catholic Church can still, so to speak, pull good numbers, even though right now it is facing the formidable competition of evangelical and of a certain kind of charismatic Protestantism. Now the dilemma is what to do with this scenario. Do you go for a Church that is more doctrinally stringent, which might be more palatable to, and suitable for proselytizing in Africa and South America, thus enlarging the number of practicing Catholics, but causing Catholic doctrine to lose touch with the West? Or do you try and engage Western secular society more, so that you would have bigger numbers in the West but also a more doctrinally loose kind of Catholicism? These are big questions, which can influence not only what the Church does, but also what the rest of the world will look like. The issue of AIDS in Africa, the civil rights issue of gay marriages, the relationship between science and religion, and consequently the future of education: these are all examples of things that might develop very differently according to where the Church decides to go with its new leader. This is why we should all pay A LOT of attention to what happens in Rome in the next few weeks!

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