Today I heard the news that Pope Benedict XVI has resigned and on 28 February 2013 will vacate the throne. He is the first living Pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, who resigned in a very convoluted and political plan to end a Civil War when there was more than one man who was considered Pope. This resignation is a virtually unprecedented move which comes, as Pope Benedict says, because his “strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

So, this means that the cardinals will elect a new Pope. As the Pope’s official statement says, “I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”

Okay… so what? Seriously… does this matter? In particular, does it matter to we Christians who are not Catholic. Should Protestants care about the election of a new Pope?

Here was my answer to that question back before Pope Benedict XVI was elected. What do you think? In the last 8 years has the role of the Pope changed in any way? Has the Catholic Church changed? Do you care less or more about the election of a new pope this time?

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Why Should Protestants Care About the Election of a New Pope?

by David Drury (2005)

Whenever a Pope vacates Saint Peter’s throne and heads to heaven to bow before The Throne ancient bureaucratic wheels in the Vatican break free of their rust. Rome calls all its “princes” (red-dressed Cardinals) where those under 80 years of age vote to see who will become the next Pope. When the small chimney above the chapel starts to smoke (a tradition signifying the burning of the secret ballots) then faithful Catholics everywhere rejoice at the news and look to hear who their new Holy Father (for life) will be. As far as permanence and spiritual significance to Catholics, it makes the American Presidential Election look the race to be 11th grade class secretary.

But why should we Protestants care?

Here’s why:

THE SANCTITY OF LIFE

For many Protestants the most monumental contribution of Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church of late is in the battle over abortion. There has been great unity among the Evangelical Movement and the Catholic Church over this issue: forging unique and tight bonds in the Pro-Life movement. In fact, the position of the Catholic Church on abortion has been far more stalwart than the evangelical church at large (and some would say it has much more philosophical and medical integrity). For this reason, Protestants should care who the next Pope is and pray for the Cardinals to have discernment and wisdom in their choice. Frequently Popes are elected to overcompensate for the weaknesses of their predecessor, and to perhaps deemphasize any overemphasis as well. While the Catholic church seems quite unified on this issue, it is not set in stone that the next Holy Father will speak so unequivocally on the Sanctity of Life regarding abortion (or in matters of assisted suicide, capital punishment and reproductive technology). The next Pope may simply provide less leadership here and more in other matters.

THE CATHOLICITY OF THE CHURCH

The small “c” here in catholicity is used to denote the “entire unified church” around the globe, which includes us. Perhaps no person embodies a hope for worldwide unity of the church more than the Pope. Since the Reformation there are massive ecclesial and governmental divisions to this catholicity, but the ecumenical movement, more recently the emergent in the United States and the Missional Church have sought to find more common ties and mission with the Catholic Church, and vice-versa. Pope John Paul II was quite intentional in this area and sought to bridge divides over past sins against other religious groups as well (Jews and Muslims most notably). The word “Pontiff” itself means “bridge-builder.” We should care about catholicity even if we shouldn’t become Catholics.

RESPONSE TO MINISTERIAL SCANDAL

The scandal of Priests abusing children has rocked the reputation of the Catholic Church in many places, perhaps most notably in the Eastern United States and in Ireland. But it has also cast a pall over ministers everywhere, in a much more visceral and criminal way than the financial scandals of the 80s Televangelists have. The response from the next Pope to the existing and any future scandals—and possible reforms in the accountability, structure and style of Priesthood—will affect Protestants as well. And we should also care about this because of all the pain it is causing people.

WOMEN IN THE MINISTRY

The issue of women becoming priests has been largely sidelined as improbable and out of the mainstream in the Catholic Church. However, there is a large underground movement within Catholicism to push this issue with the next Papal regime. The forced celibacy of priests is a related issue here, and the scandals have gone so far as to re-raise this potential within Catholicism. Protestants as a whole are going in opposite directions on this issue, and both “sides” will be wise to care about any potential shifts within the Catholic priesthood policy. For my part, I do hope to see this equality established in the Catholic Church as it is in my own Wesleyan Church. However, I think we both should refrain from ordaining Sinead O’Connor.

THEOLOGICAL SHIFTS

The theological power of the Pope is nearly infallible within the Catholic Church. This, of course, is part of our major “protest” against Roman Papalism as Protestants. However, that theological power has bled into many other denominations and movements in history, even since the Reformation. We have largely focused on the political statements of the Pope in the past century. We should be ready for theological statements of the Pope in the coming one.

POLITICAL POWER

But the political force of the Pope is huge. When John F Kennedy was elected president many wondered if “the White House would take its cues from the Vatican.” This worry was somewhat unfounded, but rooted in a sense that the political positions of the Pope have a great bearing on governments everywhere. Perhaps this is the most lasting legacy of Pope John Paul II, who spoke to political issues with frequency and effectiveness. The Evangelical Right has nothing on the Pope when it comes to political power. And when it comes to church and state separation in the US—we are reminded with this election in Rome that the Vatican is both church and state at the same time.

SPIRITUAL DIRECTION AND DYNAMIC

The entire spiritual dynamic of the Church worldwide is affected by the Pope. John Paul II was extremely effective at elevating his office to the place of “world spokesman for religion” and therefore we should care about this election for that reason alone if no others. Whether we like it or not, the Pope speaks for us from time to time. If not in the current day, then at least in history he speaks for us. Perhaps I’m overestimating the direction the Pope gives to the spiritual climate and dynamic of all churches and their influence on the culture around them. But as Pope John Paul II is memorialized and some other cardinal must fill the massive white shoes of this Polish Pope, we will be reminded of the huge role he played on the international stage in the past quarter-century.

Perhaps Protestants underestimate how much can float away on the smoke rising from the Vatican chapel chimney.

© 2005 by David Drury

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