After Pope's Surprise Resignation, A Flood Of Speculation

Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, unexpectedly announced Monday that he will resign at the end of the month. With his resignation comes speculation about his tenure, potential successors and the future of the Catholic Church. Rocco Palmo, who runs the blog Whispers in the Loggia, explores the pope's legacy and what's ahead for the Catholic Church.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

It's Monday and time now for the Opinion Page. And after today's stunning news from the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI plans to resign, we want to hear your opinion on his legacy. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger replaced John Paul II nearly eight years ago and his papacy included sex abuse and cover-up scandals in his native Germany, Ireland and Belgium, among other places. Pope Benedict maintained the extensive travel schedule that came to be expected under his predecessor. He also reached out to other faith, notably to Jews. Again, we want to hear your thoughts on his legacy, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Rocco Palmo is a journalist and founder of the blog Whispers in the Loggia. He's written for the tabloid, Catholic Weekly, and joins us now via Skype from his home office in Philadelphia. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROCCO PALMO: Thanks, Neal. Crazy day.

CONAN: Crazy day, a complete surprise.

PALMO: Yes and no. Yes because, you know, in Italy, for those of us who do this work every day and follow the Vatican with the pope saying what he's doing, we've been kicking this around for a couple of years. You know, Benedict has actually, both in symbolic, you know, signals but also explicitly at times talked about leaving the door open to resignation if he felt unable to do the job anymore. He comes from a very different background, or spirituality, as John Paul II. John Paul is very kind of supernatural in spirituality. Benedict is much more of a realist and basically, you know, being a German with a kind of a Teutonic efficiency. Well, if I can't do the job, I can't do it anymore. But to have heard a knock on my door at 6 o'clock this morning and somebody screaming the pope resigned, I thought I was having the craziest dream of my life.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It - someone has described the - that decision today as one of the chief legacies of this pope, the idea that the pope can resign for the first time in, what, several hundred years.

PALMO: Seven hundred years, 1294, when a pope who resigned the office and sometime later was consigned to hell by Dante, "Divine Comedy," because he was seen as renouncing his call from God. And it's interesting, too, Neal, because, you know, when Benedict, a couple of years ago, left Rome, went to the south of Italy to go to the tomb of that pope, Celestine V, who was - the body was exiled from Rome because he was seen as a disgrace for resigning the papacy. And Benedict brought with him the symbol of his office, the pallium, a woven band he was invested with in 2005, and laid it on Celestine's tomb. And for those of us, again, who follows every day, it was a signal to us that this was something that was very much on his mind.

CONAN: And can his legacy be separated from that of his predecessor, John Paul II, with whom he worked very closely for many, many years?

PALMO: Oh, yeah, because they're two different people. And part, I think, of the reason that Benedict has left the door open to this over time and has come to the step today - I actually just got off the phone with somebody who was in the room this morning, gave me a very intense description of what was going in there as the pope made his announcement. But, you know, he didn't want us - for John Paul saw the papacy as something that God gave him and that God would take from him by letting him die.

But Benedict, again, in his theology and his teaching, is much more of a realist. And so - but Benedict saw - because of John Paul's determination to keep on, literally, until death - he was appearing at his apartment window until days before he died, John Paul. But Benedict saw how the - the nuts-and-bolts of the job of being pope, governing 1.2 billion Catholics, the largest organized religious body around the world. The church ground to a halt in the last five years of John Paul's pontificate, and we were all on a death watch. And he didn't want to put the church through that again.

CONAN: Can you share that description of that intense moment this morning?

PALMO: Sure. I talked to a senior Vatican cleric who is in the room who had no idea that this was going to happen today. From what I'm just seeing, Neal, only two cardinals were told over the last couple of days, and one of them was told, I think, on Friday in a private meeting. And, you know, this guy told me he didn't know Latin terribly well, but everybody's eyes, like those who did know Latin, their eyes just started going off when Benedict - this was a routine ceremony, fairly routine, for the canonization of new saints, to announce the dates when new saints would be made.

And then at the end, the pope pulls out this statement in Latin and starts reading it - well, thing is, since Vatican II, since you don't have to say mass in Latin anymore, most priests, most bishops, even some cardinals don't know Latin. And so this guy was telling me that he - people's eyes, among those who knew Latin, just started going off in the room, so that everybody knew something was - crazy was going on. And the pope walked out, and apparently, there was just dead silence in the room. Everybody was stunned.

CONAN: And did somebody say: Anybody know Latin?

PALMO: Well, no. They just started talking in Italian or German or French, or whatever their language is, and communicating to each other: The pope has announced he's going to resign.

CONAN: Wow. Interesting. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're speaking with Rocco Palmo, a journalist and founder of the blog Whispers in the Loggia. And we'd like to hear what you think is the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Jerry, Jerry on the line with us from Milwaukee.

JERRY: The great legacy of Benedict XVI is the restoration of the Mass of Pius V, the Latin mass. We went through liturgical nonsense after Vatican II that destroyed our priesthood and our church. Benedict understood that, and he made the Mass of Pius V once again a normative mass, open to all Catholics. And now we have at least three orders in the church that are trained to offer this mass for the worldwide apostolate, and that's going to be his great legacy.

CONAN: Rocco Palmo?

PALMO: Well, I think that's a maximalist statement. Benedict, in 2007, did extend the permission for - a wider permission for the celebration of the mass according to the rites that were in place before Vatican II from the time of the Council of Trent, which was beginning of the Counter-Reformation, after the Protestant Reformation.

You know, in the church, the term that Benedict instituted was there would be the extraordinary form of the mass. The ordinary form, you know, the day-to-day form of the mass, would still be that which was implemented after Vatican II, most of the time in the vernacular, in native language, not in Latin, not with priests facing away from the people - you know, facing the wall, if you will, as some say.

But, you know, for - what Jerry said, you know, for as much as Benedict gave priests that permission to say it privately and where there's a group of people who want to have the old mass, to say it publicly, Benedict himself has never celebrated in that mass. And he sees that it's something for people who want it, who aspire to that form of worship. But it's not something normative or that's going to be, you know, imposed on people who don't seek it in the life of the church.

CONAN: Jerry, why was this so important to you?

JERRY: Well, because the church died after Vatican II, and it died because we changed our mass. It's not accurate to say that Ratzinger never celebrated the Mass of Pius V. He celebrated it three times at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York during the 1990s when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. It's our identity. It's what makes us Catholic. And it was taken away from us. It was never abrogated or officially suppressed, and now we have it back courtesy and thankfully of - because of Benedict XVI.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

PALMO: Well, I just - if I can clarify, Neal, Cardinal Ratzinger did say the pre-Vatican II mass at certain occasions. When he said it in St. Patrick's cathedral, he said it in the private sacracy, which is not publicly accessible in the cathedral, and he has never celebrated it as a pope.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bob, and Bob's on the line with us from Cleveland.

BOB: Hi. I am afraid that the great legacy of this pope is that he ran the church when they lost most of the Catholics under the age of 50 to stop going to church actively, and that hopefully the next pope will bring about a change in the understanding of the church to bring people back or make it - help them reconsider the church.

I think they now see it as an organization that's based upon a lot of rules, but no substance and meaning. And I don't think that's a correct statement, but I think it's the generally believed statement, certainly hurt even further by the pedophilia, you know, scandals and - which have even touched the pope himself and his brother. And I'm hoping that this next pope can do something to remind people of the great legacy of the church and the great meaning of the doctrine of the church, as opposed to perhaps the weakness of some of the people who have run the church.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that. And, Rocco Palmo, unlike John Paul II, Benedict did reach out and meet with victims of sexual abuse. He addressed it much more publicly than John Paul ever did. Still, many people say he did not go far enough.

PALMO: Well, yeah. Neal, he's had to walk - it's been very difficult. But, you know, there's a saying in Italy that the church thinks in centuries. And within 12 or 13 years - first as Cardinal Ratzinger, and then as Pope Benedict - has kind of revolutionized the church's response to sex abuse. He had to fight a Vatican turf war for five years to bring under his oversight - in his job before he became pope - oversight of sex abuse cases, because the cardinal who had been running sex abuse cases until he finally was able to have oversight of them was congratulating bishops for covering up abuse.

And once Ratzinger got the control of cases and then became the pope, since the last 12 years - and even before the scandal erupted in the U.S., I should note. It wasn't done under public pressure. Eight thousand priests, credibly accused of abuse around the world have been defrocked. Several bishops in - around the world have actually been pulled out of office, having presided over cover-ups, by Benedict, on his orders. And, you know, obviously, when you talk to survivors, when you work with them - and I've done that through the years and their families - one case is one too many. And a thousand cases just break your heart into a million pieces.

And the emotion of that and the shattered-ness you feel just hearing it will always live with you. And - but at the same time, he deserves a lot of credit that he hasn't gotten. But given the failures of the church over time, that's something that's only going to shake itself out over the decades to come.

CONAN: Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia and the legacy of Benedict the XVI on the Opinion Page this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And it has to be said, I guess, Cardinal Mahony - disgraced in the release of documents from the archdiocese of Los Angeles just in the past few weeks - does he get a vote on the next pope?

PALMO: Indeed, he does. There will be 11 Americans voting. Mahony, by seniority, is the senior American. And it's really open season. You know, I talk to Benedict, by now - just in seven years as pope - has named the majority of the American cardinals. And I talked to one of the cardinals named by Benedict today, who obviously has never had to vote for a pope, or even had to think about it until today, really. And so I just asked this guy, I said: Is this the moment - even if you've been a cardinal for a while now, a couple of years now. Is this the moment when, really, like, when it becomes real, of what you're going to have to do in a couple of weeks, locked in the Sistine Chapel, looking up Michelangelo's "Last Judgment," deciding the future of the church, or being one vote in what decides the future of the church? And he said: no question.

CONAN: Let's go to next Gabrielle, Gabrielle with - Lakewood, Ohio.

GABRIELLE: Right. I think that his decision should be really considered one of the greatest legacies for the church, because can you imagine if somebody develops Alzheimer's at, say, 70, and he lives to be 90? His spirit is really not running it. But maybe some of the church leaders - and that's not really who we chose as a pope, and it's run by somebody else. And it's good that the church is going to see this need to be honest and say: I cannot do the job, because the church is a living organism, and it has to breathe and move with the times. And I hope that - I, for example, I'm a Catholic. I have turned off myself from the church because it is against birth control.

And to me, that is a very serious problem, because we are having overpopulation. We are growing exponentially as a humanity. We're exhausting the planet's resources. And unless the church faces this reality, this is going to be absolutely a catastrophic thing for the whole planet. And so this, to me, I pray to God that the new pope sees that, just because we are taking birth control doesn't mean that we love Jesus less or that we are less Catholic. And so, to me, this is a serious point, and I hope they will be taken in consideration for the new pope.

CONAN: Gabrielle, thank you very much for your call. And Rocco Palmo, she mentioned you could point to dwindling flocks in the United States and Western Europe. You could also point to, well, growing members of the faith in Africa.

PALMO: Yeah. But even, Neal, in this country, you know, when you talk about decline in American Catholicism, it's actually something that's limited to the Northeast. You know, the largest - five centuries since Catholicism first came to these shores, only now is the largest diocese in America actually existing in Los Angeles, five million Catholics, twice larger than New York and Chicago, the second and third largest dioceses combined. They baptized 100,000 infants every year in the archdiocese of Los Angeles. American Catholics, now own the back of immigration, own the back evangelization in the South and the West of this country, much like the rest of the country.

You know, the demographic center of the American church is shifting. So people hear about parish closings. They don't hear about parish openings. But mid-century, you know, the church in this country - which now has 70 million members - is probably going to have 100 million members. They're just not going to be Anglo.

CONAN: A couple of emails, this from Tom Smith in Ann Arbor: I'm a conservative Catholic in Ann Arbor. I support Pope Benedict. If he feels the need to step down, it takes a good man to know when he's not as effective as the job demands. I will support any strong pope chosen. I feel the church's message has become weak, especially in the U.S. Uncertainty needs to become certainty, reinforcement of our doctrine and pushing out liberalism.

John in San Francisco writes: NPR's coverage of the pope's retirement has used the expression the modern Catholic Church. To me and millions of others, this is an oxymoron. The legacy this pope will be that of driving away many from the church with his cold-hearted, antiquated ideas about history, women and minorities. And so there's going to be a sharply divided opinion about the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, no doubt including his historic decision to resign.

Andrew - excuse me, Rocco Palmo, thank you very much for time today.

PALMO: Anytime, Neal. Stay tuned. It's going to be an interesting next month.

CONAN: It will be that. Rocco Palmo is a journalist and founder of the blog Whispers in the Loggia. He's written for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly newspaper, joined us by Skype from his home in Philadelphia. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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