The Resignation of the Pope

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Jenn Lindsay
Interrogating Religion
Washington Times Religion Blog
February 21, 2013

Does the Pope’s Resignation Matter to Non-Catholics?

News pages and Facebook feeds are abuzz with headlines of Pope Benedict’s resignation. 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide received this news with a range of reactions, asking questions such as: is the pope still infallible after retirement? What will happen to Cardinal Ratzinger? Who will the new pope be and what does that mean for my church?

Those of us who aren’t Catholic may look upon this news with curiosity or fascination, as the thick velvet curtain of the world’s third wealthiest institution (after Harvard University and Microsoft) is briefly drawn aside. But how does this news matter to non-Catholics? Yes, the Vatican is a fascinating, complex, opulent institution shrouded in historical secrets and arcane traditions. But do its political developments touch the lives of those who do not subscribe to its doctrine? Is the pope a mere figurehead, a politically impotent fashion-plate like the British royal family, or does he actually impact the world beyond the Vatican’s shadow? Is this news really significant for non-Catholics, beyond providing watercooler fodder and a rejuvenated cycle of internet memes?

One angle for considering the significance of the papacy to non-Catholics is to look at the tenure of the last pope, John Paul II. John Paul II’s star rose during a global media explosion. From the dawn of his papacy the world saw the development of the internet and cheaper, more efficient global transit. These two factors enabled the Pope to reach his followers in a personal, immediate way, becoming a central figure in their lives, and becoming visible and audible to the world at large. This visibility initiated many conversations about the relevance of religion in the modern age--especially when the institution at the center is addled with such grandiose and enigmatic aesthetics as the Vatican--and raised awareness about the bearing of religion on social policy concerning contraception, women’s rights, abortion, and LGBT civil rights. Confronted with the spiritual and moral policies of the institution, non-Catholics became more literate on these matters in their own lives, through identifying with or taking offense at Vatican screeds on human bodies, human relationships, and human purpose. Our vernacular shifted: once the purview of Catholic in-jokers, now we all wisecrack about the Popemobile, red pontifical Prada slippers, and the amazing array of hats seen at any given Vatican gathering. Ribbing aside, the Vatican’s high visibility raises questions amidst all types of religious and seculars alike about religious politics and loyalty, and the meaning of faith, ritual, and religious hierarchies.

John Paul II’s visibility was a factor in the hastening of globalization. The seating of a Polish Pope suggested that the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church extended beyond Western Europe. He was able to give faithful credence and solidarity to the peaceful collapse of communism in Soviet-era Poland and gradually throughout Europe. His fluency in eight languages--and employment of those languages during his constant globetrotting--increased the sense of a global Catholic community. His outreach to Muslims and Jews--John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the Western Wall or to visit Rome’s central synagogue, and he officially recognized anti-semitism as a sin and apologized for Holocaust-era Catholic inactivism--also established a popular impression that the Christian ecumenism of Vatican 2 had expanded to encompass interreligious tolerance. John Paul II, the CEO of Catholicism Inc., restructured his curia (something like the Vatican’s board of directors) from an Italian clique into a multicultural, international administration. This was all good stuff. Of course, there was plenty that John Paul II didn’t do--advance the status of women, homosexuals or children, duly punish...
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