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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Papacy After Benedict XVI

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life


Less than 24 hours before Pope Benedict XVI formal­ly resigned as Bishop of Rome and head of the global Catholic Church, the Boisi Center co-hosted a major panel discussion of Benedict’s legacy and the challenges he left to his successor. Boston College theologians Robert Imbelli, James Bretzke S.J., Mary Ann Hinsdale, I.H.M. and James Weiss shared insights, opinions and historical anecdotes on the forthcoming papal conclave, with Church historian Mark Massa, S.J., dean of BC’s School of Theol­ogy and Ministry, moderating the spirited conversation.

Fr. Imbelli, a priest of the Catholic archdiocese of New York, began the conversation by examining the strengths and weaknesses of Benedict’s papacy. Among the pope’s strengths, Imbelli argued, was his loyalty to Vatican II’s call for evangelization and his attempt to refocus the Church’s social teaching upon Christological grounds. Imbelli also cited Benedict’s brilliant writings on the mu­tually enriching relationship between faith and reason. As for the outgoing pope’s weaknesses, Imbelli agreed with the conventional wisdom that the pontiff lacked the strong administrative skills and foresight necessary to manage Vatican affairs and the global church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals.

Fr. Bretzke, who has studied and worked in many coun­tries in Europe and Asia, examined Benedict’s legacy from a cross-cultural perspective. Noting that neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI were well-travelled prior to their elections, he hoped for a new pope who will be better grounded in a multi-cultural understanding of the Catho­lic Church. Bretzke also argued that the speculation and introspection that prevail in advance of a papal conclave provide a healthy service to the Church by drawing out many views of what the Church truly needs. Despite his optimism, Bretzke also reminded the audience that the world should in some sense expect “more of the same”—semper idem, in Latin—from the Vatican because major changes are quite rare.

Fr. Weiss, an Episcopal priest, gave a brief history of papal conclaves while highlighting the unprecedented nature of this particular transition. He began his remarks by won­dering, “What are the cardinals thinking?” He argued that there is a high level of distrust between the cardinals and the Curia, resulting from a general mismanagement of Vatican affairs during Benedict’s papacy. As a result, he argued, the new pope’s chief of staff may be as important as the pope himself if administrative reforms are to be effective. Weiss also noted that Benedict’s early resigna­tion meant that the cardinals have had more time than any of their predecessors since 1800 to deliberate prior to the conclave. As a result, said Weiss, “We know what they are thinking about, but not what they are thinking about it. No front-runner has emerged.”

Sr. Hinsdale called Benedict’s resignation a “progressive act,” and expressed her hope that his departure will allow a greater voice for women within and outside of the Church hierarchy. She called upon Church leaders to make col­legiality a core practice and reminded the audience that the Holy Spirit is working with and through all people. Hin­sdale described previous popes as tremendous witnesses to the faith of the Church, but argued that real dialogue is needed with women in the church who do most of the groundwork for and with the faithful.

While none of the panelists (nor the packed audience nor any of the usual Vatican observers!) predicted Cardinal Bergoglio’s election as Pope Francis two weeks later, their wisdom and vision gave everyone an excellent framework by which to reflect upon the new pontiff’s leadership.