Pope Benedict XVI stepped down last Thursday—and for anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock, this is big news. The last time a Pope stepped down was over half a millennium ago, in 1415; this was because the position was contested and the only way then Pope Gregory XII could finagle formal recognition was by agreeing to resign.

Here at HIPPO Reads, we wanted to provide readers with a primer on the history of papacy, particularly that of recent times. When everything is measured in numbers, Joseph Ratzinger (the given name of Pope Benedict XVI) seems to have performed well.  His papacy has seen the strengthening of US vocations—previously on the decline, they have been rising since 2006, with new US ordinations at 480 in 2012.  Polls indicate that although Benedict was a less popular pope than his predecessor, John Paul II, opinions of the Church as a whole have strengthened under his papacy.

And yet, he was not without detractors—especially since his was a reactionary papacy.  When he was first elected, hard liner Catholics celebrated:

Benedict was well-known as an enforcer of orthodoxy, cracking down harshly on nuns, supporters of same-sex marriage and other progressive factions within the church, and the beleaguered liberals in Catholicism are hoping that the next pope will bring a change of direction.

The transition of Pope Benedict is an interesting one because it comes at the intersection of tradition being transformed and modernized.  Pope Benedict, for instance, was the first pope with a twitter account—which, upon his resignation, was summarily purged by the Vatican.  Vatican followers can’t decide if the gesture is funny or anachronistic—after all, the symbolic “fisherman” ring the pope uses to seal his correspondence has for centuries been broken and burned following the transfer of the papacy.  Perhaps this is the digital equivalent.

What happens next?  The College of Cardinals will convene to elect a new pope—and though the church is not a democracy, many Catholics are hoping that more liberal views will prevail. Crackdowns on nuns, staunch opposition of same-sex marriage and bureaucratic dysfunction were among the low points of Benedict’s regime.  But, as this article points out, the election of the next Pope is often determined by men appointed by the previous Pope—a mechanism which ensures continuity in doctrine, not reform.

As the world’s one billion Catholics await the decision of the College, it turns out the cardinals who have convened to elect a new pope are looking for a man who can fill some fairly modern criteria: according to John Allen for the National Catholic Reporter in this NPR piece, what the Vatican needs in the 21st century is a visionary, a salesman and a business manager:

One, they want somebody who has a global vision, that is who can embrace the diverse Catholic experiences in various parts of the world, who will think not only about the situation in Boston and in Brussels but also in Buenos Aires and Bangladesh.

Second, they want somebody who has the capacity to evangelize. Now that’s a technical Catholic word, but the secular equivalent of it would be a salesman. They want somebody who can move the Catholic product, so to speak, in a very competitive lifestyle marketplace.

And then third, they want a governor, there is – that is a business manager. There is a perception that the business management side of things has not been handled particularly well for the last eight years, and they want somebody who can get control of it, particularly within the bureaucracy of the Vatican itself.

Image credit: M M via flickr

About The Author

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Anna Redmond is the author of The Golden Arrow, a fantasy political thriller which draws on historical traditions of holy sex to create a society where women use sex for magic and power. She is also curator and co-founder of Hippo Reads.