After Pope's Resignation, What's Next For The Church?

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28. For more on what his resignation means for the future of the Vatican leadership, Steve Inskeep talks with Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Let's try to get a better understanding of Pope Benedict's announcement today. He was addressing a regular meeting of Catholic Church cardinals today in Rome. And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli told Renee a little bit earlier today, the pope waited until the end of the meeting to say he was resigning the papacy - the first pope to do so in almost 600 years.

The many people following this news include Matthew Schmalz. He's professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. Welcome to the program, sir.

MATHEW SCHMALZ: Grateful to be here.

INSKEEP: OK, so obviously the cardinals were stunned. Some of them, Sylvia tells us, didn't even understand what the pope was saying. But looking back on it now, now that we know, were there signs this resignation might be coming?

SCHMALZ: Well, it's interesting. I mean, there certainly were - was discussion about the pope's health. He looked (technical difficulties) that the idea of resignation had been floated, but it was unclear whether that was just to make news or a way of indicating that something more serious was going on.

INSKEEP: OK, so there was in some sense of it but not a real sense of it. So now that you know the news, why would the pope resign now?

SCHMALZ: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. I think it's best to take him at his word, that he feels as though he's not up to the job physically. But there is another aspect of this. There'll be no time of mourning before the conclave. Benedict, if he chooses to do so, can have a major role in shaping the choice of his successor.

INSKEEP: So, he has a chance to exercise power as he steps off the stage.

SCHMALZ: He can, if he chooses to do so. And I think the most interesting question will be to what extent he has totally let go of papal power - not just to administer, but to persuade.

INSKEEP: I suppose when we think about the cardinals who will choose the next pope, a great many of them have been elevated to that position during the tenure of Pope Benedict himself, right?

SCHMALZ: Yes, that's very true. But I just returned from a conference in India, where I met several Catholic cardinals. And there is dispute within the Catholic Church about the authority of Rome, not theologically but administratively. And so, the next conclave might play out in different kinds of ways than we expect at this point in time.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand what you're saying, Professor Schmalz, when you talk about a dispute over the administration of the church. You're talking about how much power Rome has at the center; how much power that the various bishops and priests have, out in the margins. Is that the question?

SCHMALZ: Exactly. Exactly, and to what extent does the Vatican allow local bishops and local bishop conferences to handle local problems on their own, or to what extent does Rome intervene because they want uniformity and a kind of coherent international witness to the Christian faith.

INSKEEP: So there was a little bit of resistance to the way the pope was running the church leading up to his announcement here, you're saying.

SCHMALZ: Yes, and I don't want to make too much of that. But I think all of us had been very much focused on Catholicism in the Western world, particularly in North America, obviously in Europe. And when you look at Catholicism more globally - even though you might have many bishops who obviously agree with the pope theologically, and agree with the teaching authority of the papacy - they might be a little miffed or a little taken aback at the way in which that authority has been centralized administratively in recent decades.

INSKEEP: Is there a real possibility of a non-European pope this time around; someone from Latin America or Africa, say?

SCHMALZ: Well, surprising things happen. I do think however that because the period until the conclave is short, the choice will more easily fall to a cardinal that every one already knows, such as Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec and so forth. I think it will take time for Asian, African, and forward-looking European and Latin American cardinals to coalesce around a particular candidate.

But every conclave that I've seen has been surprising in some way. And cardinals usually choose a successor that has very different personal qualities than the previous pope.

INSKEEP: Two quick questions for you here. First, I mean when a president leaves office, he can remain a major figure. When the president of China leaves office, he remains a hugely powerful figure. Can Benedict remain powerful as an ex-pope?

SCHMALZ: My sense, from what I've heard, is that he would like to retire to a monastery and write. So I don't think you will see him in subsequent years play a very large role. I think the crucial question is, within the next month, what role does he play since he is sitting on the Chair of Peter.

INSKEEP: And finally, what does it say about him that he was willing to give up power? This is an exceedingly rare thing for anybody to do.

SCHMALZ: Well, I think it is testament to his humility. He is not attached to the papal office because of the personal notoriety or adulation that it brings him. He is attached to the office because of its teaching authority. And my sense is that the context will be shaped in a way that the teaching authority is passed on in a way in which he would approve.

INSKEEP: Well, Mathew Schmalz, thanks very much for your insights.

SCHMALZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

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