John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the upcoming conclave: Considering the role of the pope in a post-Christian world

Like Nixon in China, Benedict reshaped the image of the papacy.

Two weeks after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, almost everything that can be said about the decision has been said. And re-said. One hesitates to add any more noise to the clamor, particularly when there are already so many excellent theological, political, and practical pieces out there to see us through the coming weeks of transition in the Vatican.

When asked for a broader framework by which to understand the decision of Pope Benedict – a ‘first pass’ at its historical implications, so to speak – I have continually returned to this final act of his papacy as a final act of contrast between his own understanding of the office and that of his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II. This, in turn, is not unrelated to a central theme of Benedict’s theology and papacy: the role of the pope in a post-Christian world. The contrast between Benedict and John Paul provides one more analytical tool for understanding whatever decision is made at the upcoming conclave.

I write as a theologian who, like many Roman Catholics today, has no conscious memories of a pope before John Paul. I think it important never to underestimate the impact a papacy that lasted twenty-six and a half years has had not only at the official levels of institutional appointments and teachings, but also at the equally formative level of our collective imagination—of our sense of what a pope should look like, what he should do, how he should act. For the vast majority of people in the world today, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, John Paul remains a ‘gold standard’ to which Benedict, and all future popes, might be compared. John Paul was emphatically a public pope, a pope to the world and, in his blend of charisma and modern technologies, a pope of the world in many ways.

Benedict was one of the few papal candidates (or papabili) in 2005 with an unquestioned authority to preserve John Paul’s legacy. And yet that presumption allowed Benedict to chart a different path from his predecessor’s, in substance but especially in style. A bit like Nixon in China, Benedict was able to reshape the image of the papacy in ways that might have been criticized had a different man been elected pope. From this perspective, Benedict’s decision to retire as pope is simply the last and greatest contrast between two models of papacy. Where John Paul embraced the world with each visit to a new country or meeting with a religious leader, Benedict approached the world with benevolent caution, never intentionally hostile (pace Regensburg) but never warmly optimistic either. Where John Paul used his smile and his charisma, Benedict used his words and the depth of his thought. Where John Paul felt the freedom to change or modify Catholic culture and tradition – from his statements on Jewish-Christian relations and the gatherings at Assisi, to Divine Mercy Sunday and the ‘Luminous Mysteries’ of the rosary—Benedict, until last week, studiously avoided any breaks, major or minor, with the tradition. Even his most ‘innovative’ moves have often been to recover aspects of the tradition that he thought lost or underappreciated under the papacy of John Paul.

This might all be chalked up to the differences in their personalities and gifts, between the former actor and former academic. But as John O’Malley, S.J., has repeatedly reminded us, Le style c’est l’homme même. The noticeable differences between John Paul and Benedict corresponds to two models of what a pope ought to be for the Roman Catholic Church and how he ought to relate to a post-Christian world.

For John Paul, to be pope was to be a pastor to that world, combining openness to all people with a personal charisma that made him a very public face of Christianity. The famous photo of him borrowing Bono’s glasses symbolizes not the meeting of opposites but of two similar minds, both aware of the potential of a charismatic individual (un leader, as transcribed into the Italian) to influence world events.

In contrast to John Paul’s sense of personal, charismatic authority, Benedict’s model of papacy views its authority as rooted in the office itself, in the duties and responsibilities of the bishop of Rome, and in the pope as the guarantor of the tradition of the church. In comparison to John Paul, Benedict at times seemed to hide his personality behind his words, and to hide his particular preferences and theological opinions behind the office itself. I believe that this was intentional—not just a matter of personal idiosyncracy, but a conscious change of direction toward a less personality-driven papacy. At one level, it was rooted in a theology of episcopal collegiality that he assisted in crafting as a peritus (‘expert’) at the Second Vatican Council. But at a deeper level, it is consistent with his relative suspicion of the mechanisms of a secular world. As an Augustinian theologian, Benedict, despite his twitter feed, exercised a great deal of caution when stepping out into the whirlwind of the modern media cycle. He avoided, by choice as well as by temperament, much of the cult of personality that has been such a dominant aspect of the modern papacy and which arguably reached its apex in the example of John Paul. His resignation is therefore a coda, not a surprise ending, to a deliberately diminished, intentionally less monarchical, model of papacy.

In the upcoming conclave, therefore, there will be many factors that the cardinal electors will be considering, and even beyond the threat of excommunication, it makes little sense to place bets on the next pope. But in addition to weighing the next pope’s age, his nationality, his skills, his theological positions, one major factor will likely be the question of what papal model the electors think that the church requires. Perhaps one of the many blessings of not being a cardinal is not having the responsibility of making such a decision.