HABEMUS PAPAM. WE HAVE A pope. The election of Pope Benedict XVI marks the conclusion of one of the most significant transitional moments in Roman Catholicism, rivaled only, perhaps, by the convocation of an ecumenical council.
Speculation about the identity of the new pope has given way to questions regarding his agenda for the church. The identity of the new pope suggests a papacy that will continue the overall thrust of his predecessor. Still, there are many possible new directions in which Benedict could lead our church.
But another important question is worth considering: Will this pope follow his predecessor in reshaping the institution of the papacy itself?
In 26 years Pope John Paul II transformed the institution of the papacy in many ways. It is worth considering which aspects of that re-made papacy are likely to continue with the new pope and which will not.
Of popes and politics
Surely part of the enduring legacy of Pope John Paul II will be the dramatic role he played on the world stage. Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that Pope John Paul II contributed significantly to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Vatican commentator John Thavis has described the pope as the "spiritual godfather of communism's demise."
The first Polish pope in history was never reluctant to thrust himself in the midst of world events, whether it was lecturing dictators or taking unpopular stands against both Iraq wars. Will this papal activism be an enduring feature in the exercise of the papacy?
It was a role particularly suited to a Polish pope who had experienced the horrors of World War II and suffered directly under a communist regime, a fact that might suggest John Paul's global activism was unique to him and may not be continued by future popes. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, is a much more reserved and even shy public figure, not likely to be comfortable as a regular "player" on the world stage.
Still, the time when popes were considered exclusively religious leaders providing only for the spiritual needs of their flock is gone. The papacy has become a powerful voice in the world with unique moral credibility. Future popes are going to be unlikely to yield that influence entirely.
It is possible, for example, that Pope Benedict will feel compelled in the months and years ahead to take a public role in responding to the threat of modern terrorism, particularly because of its complex link to religion. Terrorism has been for decades a tragic reality for many in the world, but the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001 gave global terrorism a much higher profile. Unfortunately this new profile took place during the waning years of John Paul II's pontificate, when his declining health made it difficult for him to offer the robust response that was typical of his earlier leadership. His successor may well feel the need to speak out strongly on this issue.
The power of symbols
When Catholics think of papal authority, they are likely to think of the formal authority that Catholic doctrine and canon law grant to the bishop of Rome. They might have in mind the exercise of papal infallibility, the pope's authority to canonize saints, and other canonical prerogatives, such as the authority to appoint bishops. In the last pontificate, however, we witnessed an exercise of a different kind of papal authority.
Perhaps more than any other in history, the pontificate of John Paul II will be etched in memory as a string of compelling media images. One of the most enduring will be the image of the pope kissing the ground upon his first visit to a country. Many will recall photos of the pope praying with his would-be assassin, or another of the pope praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
John Paul II also made unprecedented use of modern transportation, traveling throughout the world, publicly affirming the unique gifts of the church in each country, challenging it to further fidelity to the gospel where necessary and, where Christians suffered from injustice, bringing that injustice to world attention. …