The funeral of Benedict XVI, which takes place on Thursday in St Peter’s Square, will not, of course, be followed by the drama and intrigue of a papal conclave to elect a new pontiff. Having become the first pope to resign his office for 600 years, taking on the new title of pope emeritus, Benedict moved to the sidelines of the Roman Catholic church’s public life. For the most part, he spent the last decade in private prayer and reflection.
But as the Catholic church contemplates its future direction, it would be a mistake to view Benedict’s death at the age of 95 as anything other than a significant moment. Though the notion of “two popes” worked better as the title of a film than as a true description of Vatican reality, the politics of Benedict’s retirement have undoubtedly been fraught.
As pope emeritus, Benedict became a rallying point for opposition to attempts by his successor, Pope Francis, to move beyond his traditionalist legacy. Benedict’s failure to properly address the sex abuse scandals overwhelming the church during his pontificate has been well chronicled. But the context of that reluctance to engage was a kind of siege mentality which he embodied – first as Pope John Paul II’s ideological enforcer (earning him the nickname “God’s rottweiler”), and then as pope. Benedict’s defensive response to western secularisation viewed battening down the hatches of orthodoxy – and closing ranks within the church hierarchy – as the best antidote to the perceived relativism of the age.
Amid corruption scandals, outrage over clerical sexual abuse, and a gulf between church doctrine and the everyday experience of many ordinary Catholics, this approach served neither the church nor the world well. But it remains entrenched in parts of the Vatican. As Pope Francis – who himself intends to stand down if his health deteriorates significantly – seeks to implement a very different vision, the coming year will be crucial.
In 2021, the pope launched the awkwardly named “synod on synodality” – the biggest consultation of global Catholic opinion ever undertaken by the church. This is Francis’s flagship attempt to return to the open, participative spirit of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which concluded that church stances could and should be open to change in light of “the signs of the times”. In October, the first summary of the synodal process’s findings suggested that congregations around the world long to revive that ethos.
Collated responses from millions of Catholics record a widespread desire for an agenda of “radical inclusion”. This encompasses equality for women within the church, greater focus on the plight of poor and marginalised groups such as migrants, a welcoming approach to LGBTQ Catholics, and an overhaul on church governance in relation to sexual abuse. It is an outline of a progressive Catholicism that can build bridges with secular society, instead of taking pride in keeping a distance in the name of doctrinal purity.
The Catholic church is not a democracy, and the final outcome of the synod is likely to be less radical than many participants would hope. But in an era in which Christian identity – and Benedict’s traditionalism – have been weaponised by the radical right, a reform programme with its roots in the laity would have welcome ramifications beyond the pews. Pope Francis’s listening exercise can let the winds of change finally blow through a global institution in need of renewal.