That a New Zealander won’t be part of the papal conclave was possibly the least interesting thing to say about the shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

When global events happen, some in our media hit the cultural cringe button and head out to find the New Zealand angle. We can’t just be citizens of the world. Hence it was important to get the perspective of a New Zealander living in Rome or my neighbour's dog on the recent resignation of the Pope. A local Bishop was interviewed and asked to have an opinion on the lack of a New Zealand cardinal in the conclave to elect a new Pope.

That a New Zealander won’t be there was possibly the least interesting thing to say about the shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

The resignation of a Pope hasn’t happened for over 600 years. As Mere Orthodoxy blogger Kevin White writes “The last time it happened, a Christian Emperor sat in Constantinople, Christopher Columbus wasn’t born yet, and Dante was still writing the Divine Comedy.”

There are some who think Pope Benedict has let the team down by admitting weakness and therefore papal fallibility. The Pope is meant to be the last in a direct line of God’s chosen representatives, starting with disciple Peter. Surely God wouldn’t choose someone not up to the job. 

“One doesn’t come down from the cross,” Cardinal Dziwisz, former secretary to John Paul II, remarked disapprovingly. Even our own guardian of doctrinal error, Chris Trotter, suggested the Pope is “nothing more than a holy chief executive" if he doesn’t stay at his post until God decides it’s time. That ignores recent history; papal infallibility only became hard dogma in the 19th century in an attempt to reclaim the moral high ground after some very fallible popes did some bad things.

No matter what you think of the resignation, choosing the next Pope matters to us far more than who next sits on the throne in Britain.

 It’s not just us Catholics who should pay attention.

The Catholic church can influence political debate, the direction of economies, views on genetics, abortion, homosexuality.  It can give a voice to the dispossessed. When it failed at the highest levels to stand up to the rape of children within the church, the damage can take a generation to heal. 

This resignation has been called an ‘ecclesiastical earthquake’. As if to add to the drama, the Vatican was struck by lightening. “Sounds like someone's not handling the breakup well," said US comedian Conan O'Brien.

In overseas media the story has had gravitas. Just read Andrew Sullivan in the Daily Dish for a start. The prize for most dramatic headline goes to the Vatican press packet: “Pope Renounces Papal Throne”. (Topped only by a headline from the Vatican a few years ago: "Pope exonerates Jews for death of Jesus.")

A lot has been written about the conservative nature of the present College of Cardinals. The cynics say they’ll never elect a reforming Pope because they were all hand picked by either Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict for their adherence to tradition. There will be no return to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council where the Church was modernised to meet the challenge of the 1960s, they argue.

But that ignores the fact that this conclave includes cardinals from Africa, Canada and the US. We could be about to see the first non-European Pope, or even the first African Pope. The front runner is an African. It’s true, the African Catholic church is morally conservative and not likely to start distributing condoms or electing homosexual priests, let alone women. But it could revolutionise economics.

What matters in African is poverty, the gross inequality that exists because corrupt governments pocket the proceeds of oil and diamonds and get rich while others go hungry. Jobs matter.  

Morality and economics could be about to unite with a force not seen in recent years. 

Six weeks before his resignation, Pope Benedict spoke at the World Day of Peace:

“It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.”

That is an authentic Catholic message. There are cardinals among this conclave who are ready to lead a mission that targets the kind of ‘unregulated financial capitalism’ that led to the global financial crisis. That’s a mission that could change the world.

Comments (3)

by Pete Sime on February 21, 2013
Pete Sime

The first pope, St Peter, was from the Middle East, not Europe. And there have been other popes from Judea and Syria. There have been at least 3 popes from Africa - St Victor I in the 2nd century, St Militades in the 4th and St Gelasius in the 5th. So it's not accurate to say we could have the first non-European pope. Just the first one for a very long time.

by Tim Watkin on February 22, 2013
Tim Watkin

I think it's fair to have some hope that the new Pope will continue or even enhance the Catholic church's good work on poverty under the past two papacies. On that thought, we must be just about due another year of jubilee, mustn't we?

I'd actually have even more hope of that with a South American pope, given the tradition of more radical social justice Christianity in that part of the world.

But if as many assume the pope comes from the developing world, we're likely to see a more determined form of conservatism on the issues that actually have a huge bearing on poverty, especially contraception and the role of women. If birth control isn't endorsed and women aren't liberated, it's pretty hard to break out of the poverty trap, whatever other good intentions come out of Rome (leading to hell?).

I live in hope, but I'm doubtful the poor will have much to rejoice about when the new pope is elected. Hope I'm wrong.

by Tim Watkin on February 22, 2013
Tim Watkin


And well, well, well... could be more work for the new pope to do internally, clearing out a hornet's nest in the Vatican.

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