By Candice Leigh Helfand

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — In a shocking turn of events, Pope Benedict XVI abdicated from his position as leader of the Catholic Church, announcing that he plans to step down from the papacy at the end of the month.

Benedict XVI released a statement through the Vatican regarding his reasoning behind the surprising move.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” the statement, obtained by CBSDC, reads.

News of the decision spread like wildfire while speculation regarding the reasoning behind his abdication became a topic of discussion. Rumors of concealed scandals and specific illnesses flew despite official commentary that the Holy Father’s ailing health was the reason for his early departure.

The buzz is nothing new for Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger in April 1927 and elected to the papacy at the age of 78 in April 2005 – the 265th person to assume the role. In fact, the German pontiff’s time leading the Catholic Church has been rife with controversy.

Some of the most notable instances included the simultaneous criticism and commendations he drew for his markedly conservative stances on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as accusations made against him regarding his handling – or mishandling – of allegations of child abuse levied at members of the Catholic Church.

His headline-grabbing tenure as pope also involved moments such as his exoneration of the Jewish people in the death of Jesus Christ and the creation of the first papal Twitter account.

His oft-controversial statements have frequently sparked debates between religious skeptics and the fervently faithful. The latter praise Benedict for the issues and stances he emphasized during his papacy, and for serving first and foremost as an extension and representation of the Catholic faith.

“One of the things it is sometimes hard for people outside of the church to understand is that the role of the papacy is, in fact, to preach and promote the teachings of the church,” Dr. Susan Timoney, assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns at the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., told CBSDC. “It helps people think about what it means to be a Catholic – how we live our faith – and to deepen our faith through discussion; to learn more about what we believe in.”

She added, “[Popes] don’t … develop an agenda or a platform the way a political candidate would – their platform is already a given.”

Others, however, feel that Benedict’s conservative background and values ultimately resulted in an exclusionary papacy.

Jim FitzGerald, who serves as executive director of Call to Action (a Catholic organization focused on justice and equality), noted that the perceived myopic nature of the pope’s expressed faith could have actually turned some away from the church.

“I would make the argument that a pope is the pope for all Catholics, not just those that agree with him,” he told CBSDC. “[He should be] a leader who is going to follow the model of inclusiveness [taught] by Jesus … not one who will lay out a litmus test of who’s Catholic and who’s isn’t. They should be a shepherd, a pastor of all Catholics, not just those who fit into a certain ideology.”

Yale University’s Lamin Sanneh, who is a professor of missions and world Christianity as well as history, agreed that Benedict’s papacy may have, at times, alienated some.

“When Pope Benedict [XVI] came into office, he … [said] he wanted to be seen as a bridge-builder … especially among distant Christian churches. He saw it as a very ecumenical role, and I have no doubt that his heart was very much into that,” Sanneh, who was appointed by Benedict to the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with Muslims, said to CBSDC. “While he was very thoroughly interested in ecumenical harmony and unity, his statements went in other directions.”

He specifically mentioned peace-making visits to the Middle East and meetings with Jewish leaders, meetings of good will that seemed to be undermined by his appointment of English Bishop Richard Williamson, a known Holocaust denier.

Sanneh additionally observed a growing disparity between what he referred to as the “gravitational center of Catholicism” in the southern hemisphere and the location of the “historical center of gravity” in Europe, where many popes are from – a divide in perception and ideology that could rationalize some of the disconnect experienced by Catholics in some parts of the world.

In the United States specifically, a decline in faith among Americans has been observed.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that an estimated 28 percent of adults in the nation had either changed faiths or opted to leave faith behind altogether. Of all religions practiced in the United States, Catholicism has reportedly lost the greatest number of people – approximately 31 percent of Americans say they were raised in the Catholic faith, while only 24 percent identify as Catholic in their adulthood.

“[O]ne should recall that [a third] of American Catholics have left the church since 1965,” Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia, said to CBSDC. “[T]he number of Catholics in the United States remains stable only because of Hispanic immigration.”

Could the controversial nature of Benedict’s papacy be considered a contributing factor?

“He did have a polarizing effect in some of the things he said, but he could also retract some things, such as his speech in Regensburg in 2006,” Fogarty said, referencing the lecture given at the University of Regensburg in which he referenced an unflattering remark made about Islam.

Sanneh noted that the tone of the papacy – and of the church – might have pushed some away, in addition to his words.

“Many theologians are still stuck in the division between … religious doctrine … and social teachings of the church, and thinking that the religious teaching side is more important than social teaching,” he observed. “The forces driving Catholicism are more social and cultural than they are theological.”

Some experts feel, however, that the debates inspired by the conservative stances of Benedict and of the Catholic Church in general are good for the faith overall.

“Any time we change popes, it serves as a stimulus for conversation, specifically about the future. It opens the door for Catholics to express to either their pastors and religious leaders or to the media what they hope will be in the future,” FitzGerald said, adding that as long as there is room for respectful disagreement, the tradition of enriching debate will thrive. “[T]o stifle debate in our community, it does a disservice.”

“He was good for the church now,” Timoney said, expressing her admiration of his attempts to communicate with a vast number of people. “Part of that certainly is his great desire to want to engage the culture, to help people think about these really important questions.”

She added, “”He has a great legacy, and it’s something that I hope the next pope continues – the desire to want to engage the world. [W]e really believe that the Catholic faith has something to offer the world, a way to come to know the person of Jesus Christ.”

FitzGerald expressed a differing perspective though, and a concern for the tone adopted by potential future leaders of the faith.

“I … yearn for a Pope that will recognize a diversity of views. [I]n that diversity, we can move forward as a church and as a community,” FitzGerald said. “If a pope doesn’t recognize or appreciate that diversity, the Catholic Church may very well continue to lose members at an alarming rate.”


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