On February 11th, Pope Benedict XVI made news by being the first pope since 1415 to retire. As priests and Vatican officials reach out to parishes, both Catholic and secular media broils with the questions “what next?” and “will I like it?”.
Who the next pope is will be a weighty issue. The pope wields political power, although not in the traditional sense. He stands at the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite occasional tension between Catholics and the Vatican, the pope remains the spiritual leader of the largest church in the world. At 1.18 billion members as of 2011, Roman Catholics compromise about 20% of the world population . In the United States, this percentage is slightly higher—about 22% of American adults identify as Catholic . Obama referenced the pope’s power in a statement issued February 11th, saying “the Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world” .
This “critical role” doesn’t come without criticism. Pope Benedict XVI made friends and enemies around the world during his papacy. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, senior religious editor at the Huffington Post, referred to Pope Benedict as an “equal opportunity offender.” For instance, Benedict’s intolerance of gay marriage came as welcome news to many conservatives. However, his pushes for environmental justice and increased market regulation were decidedly more liberal . Unlike political leaders, the pope should not identify with a political party or even a straightforward liberal or conservative leaning. His job is to lead the Catholic Church, not to satisfy constituents. Some of his decisions are bound to be unpopular, but these decisions are ideally made with faith in mind.
Thus, the pope is hopefully elected from a position of faith. Much to the chagrin of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the pope is not picked on the preferences of a population. While a potential pope from the developing world is popular as an idea, geography is not something that has to play into the cardinals’ consideration. Others want a specific type of pope, maybe one more liberal or one that is completely conservative .
It’s only natural to want something out of the new pope, and everyone wants the cardinals to pick the right man. However, the right man is liable to make unpopular decisions. Nigerian Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan puts it best: “Popes come and popes go. It doesn’t mean when a pope comes, the church completely changes, now. It isn’t like a politician who wins an election and begins to implement manifestos. It is a different ball game all together, and I hope people out there realize that.”
In an increasingly secular world, the pope should be an equal opportunity offender. Although there is an element of Vatican politics, the pope is unlike other elected leaders. His aim is to please God, not the people.