Not since the end of the Western Schism has a reigning pope abdicated. This is a significant event in the history of the Catholic Church, and it is doubtful that Benedict XVI – who always was known as a conservative – would do this to set a new example as some are speculating. While John Paul II was revered and beloved, not only by catholics but by media and liberal institutions in the west, his successor has had a turbulent and often suspicious and hostile relationship with the media. This led to his papacy being defined by the media, and all the goodwill during the JP II papacy has been wrecked. The church is in a deep crisis, defined by paedophilia scandals and allegations of corruption. All the other initiatives and policies by the reigning pontiff has been overshadowed.
It is tempting to think that the new pope will be from the liberal faction, but that is unlikely, given that Benedict XVI (like all other popes) has strengthened his own faction at the expense of the others. The College of Cardinals is thus probably not aiming for any reformer, but possibly for a more communicative and charismatic pope rather than an insider. The problem however runs deeper than that, and the conclusion of this challenge will probably define the Catholic Church during the course of the 21st century.
The first conflict, between liberalisation and tradition, is already deeply entrenched in the Catholic bureaucracy, and the papacy would (as it always have) need to adapt to the changed circumstances. The traditionalists do for the moment hold the upper hand, but the course of history is running against them at the moment. The second conflict, which is not as much seen in western media, is the fact that the Catholic upper hierarchy is dominated by Europeans (particularly Italians), whereas the actual number of Catholics paint a population rooted in the southern hemisphere, in Latin America and increasingly Africa and Asia.
The traditional Catholic Church, in alliance with the catholic colonial powers, was brought to what would later become the Third World through colonialism and imperialism. Under the 1960s to the 1990s, it was made clear that local catholic clergy in the Third World could turn into a subversive weapon against westernised post-colonial elites. Liberation Theology has been condemned as heretical, but the foundations of Liberation Theology will prevail as long as the antagonistic relationship between the unipolar world dominated by the west and the emerging multipolar world is not resolved. If the curia would reflect actual Catholic population distribution, then the Catholic Church could gradually move from being the very definition of western culture, into becoming a church for the Global South.
This leads to another conclusion. The Church can either liberalise or third worldise. It can probably not do both and still be credible, and neither can it do neither. Ratzinger tried to do neither, and therefore he failed. It might have been possible to retard development during the 17th century, when Internet (or newspapers) did not exist. Nowadays, it is not possible. Liberalisation will probably stop a part of the decline in the west, while Third World-isation will speed up the decline in the west, but lead to increasing numbers of followers in the Third World. The current leadership of the Church, which consist of white European cardinals in their 70s, would probably resent both ways – but they would have to choose one of them ultimately.
According to the Prophecy of Malachi, this pope who would succeed Ratzinger would be the last pope, after whom the End-times would happen. Certainly, the Catholic Church is in dire straits now. But it has been in worse situations historically, and it has always rebounded. Ultimately, the Catholic Church would need to reform, but it has always reformed gradually and slowly after periods of stagnation, redefining itself to fit into new ages. It is the only continuous world institution (apart from the Japanese Emperor) which has survived until the digital era. It has survived the Roman persecutions, Attila, the Pornocracy, Frederick Barbarossa, the Mongols, the plague, the Borgias, the Reformation, Napoleon, democracy, socialism and Hitler. It will probably survive you too. But if it should survive, it must change to reflect the changed demographic of the global catholic congregation.
Sequence of Relations Director