In the Italian film “Habemus Papam,” a newly elected pope is so overwhelmed by the job that he scales the Vatican walls and resigns.
Nanni Moretti, playing his psychotherapist, quips: “No one in his right mind would want the job.”
As Benedict XVI begins the last 17 days of his papacy after resigning yesterday because of ill health, the line from the 2011 movie illustrates the challenges for the 85-year-old’s successor. The next pope must try to revive Catholicism’s influence in the face of modernity, and after sex-abuse and corruption scandals plagued Benedict’s eight-year reign.
“The church will have to address that people are losing their faith and that the developing world poses other challenges with its diversity and complexity,” Reverend Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said in a phone interview yesterday.
While cardinals such as the recently deceased Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan, called the church’s leadership “200 years out of date,” Benedict XVI stood for the old guard, speaking out against abortion, contraception and the idea that women could be priests even in the Anglican church.
The Conclave that will choose a new pontiff must face the question of who can reinvent the millennia-old institution and inspire a dwindling flock, with academics and bookmakers putting clerics from Africa among the favorites.
Benedict will not play a role in the selection of his successor. “He will be retired and he will not intervene in any way in the process,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters today.
“Benedict’s personal decision reflects the perception of himself as being unable to rule in a period of transition,” Federico Niglia, an adjunct professor at LUISS University in Rome, said in an interview. “Italians are still strong, but other groups are putting on pressure, so I can expect a pope from a non-European country.”
If that happens, it would be the first time a pontiff hailed from outside modern Europe. Some of the early Byzantine pontiffs, such as Constantine, were born in what today is Syria.
Candidates to fill the papal scarlet shoes include Cardinals Francis Arinze, 80, of Nigeria, Peter Turkson, 64, of Ghana, Marc Ouellet, 68, of Canada and Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri, 69, according to the latest odds at Dublin-based bookmaker Paddy Power Plc and William Hill Plc in the U.K.
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has shown it can adapt, yet for every step forward there has been an undertow.
In 1978, the Catholic elite selected an outgoing 58-year-old Pole as their leader, John Paul II. He was the first non-Italian pontiff since 1523 and the second-youngest ever.
At the time of his death, many pundits said the time was right for a candidate from an African or Latin American country where the flock was growing. Instead, John Paul II’s successor was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict, a shy German theologian who hesitantly greeted the throngs of supporters from the St. Peter’s Basilica balcony.
“There are certainly wonderful candidates from outside the U.S. and Europe,” Joseph Capizzi, an associate professor of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Catholicism in the third world is a source of enormous vitality to the rest of the church.”
Yet a pope from outside Europe wouldn’t necessarily lead to a shift in stance at the Vatican.
Cardinal Arinze, the third-favorite at Paddy Power and William Hill as of late yesterday, is a social conservative, considered to be close to John Paul II and Benedict in his views on celibacy, women priests and homosexuality.
Cardinal Turkson, the frontrunner at both bookmakers, criticized international mining contracts in Ghana and called for greater acceptance of Africans in the church leadership, according to an interview in U.S. Catholic magazine.
Cardinal Ouellet, a polyglot from Quebec, is a Vatican insider with a leadership position as head of the Congregation of Bishops. Buenos Aires-born Sandri, a diplomat, is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
Cardinal Sandri, the man who announced the death of John Paul II to the world, occupied the third most important position in the Vatican between 2000 and 2007, serving as de facto chief of staff to the secretary of state.
Among Italian clerics, who until the 1970s had a virtual lock on the papacy, Cardinal Angelo Scola might succeed Benedict, with whom he shares theological interests.
Whoever it may be, the next pope will be left with the task of restoring the reputation of the church among its more than 1 billion followers.
The self-imposed end to Benedict’s papacy caps a tumultuous period for the Roman Catholic Church, which at the start of his tenure came under attack for doing too little to punish pedophile priests and for covering up evidence.
What became clear was not only the global scale of the abuse but the systematic efforts over the decades by senior church leaders to hide the truth.
Another low point was the revelation last year of suspected corruption and political in-fighting in what became known as Vatileaks. Stolen correspondence portrayed the Vatican as a hotbed of intrigue and Benedict as a frail leader undermined by his powerful second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, once touted as “papabile,” or pope material.
The battle for the church’s future will take place, as always, behind closed doors and pit reformers against conservatives, according to John Allen Jr., author of “Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith.”
One side may argue that Benedict was out of touch with the times and that the issues affecting Catholics in the developing world, such as contraception, should come into sharper relief under the next papacy, Allen said.
The orthodox elements, which triumphed last time, will likely defend Benedict’s legacy as an enemy of “moral relativism” and maintain that following in the footsteps of the Anglican Church, for example, with the ordination of women priests, would be a mistake.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, he helped quash the “liberation theology” that mixed faith with political activism in places such as South America. As pope, Benedict reached out to traditionalists by lifting a ban on priests celebrating Latin Mass.
“He was a pope-theologian, a professor -- and certainly gave the pontificate a certain profile,” Anja Middelbeck-Varwick, a professor of theology at the Free University in Berlin, said in a phone interview.
Yet it would appear that the scholarly Benedict, who compared his own election to a “guillotine” falling toward his neck, felt he no longer fit the profile.
In Moretti’s “Habemus Papam” -- the title is drawn from the Latin words announcing the pope -- the man chosen to lead is a dark horse, a modest Frenchman plagued with doubt and uncertainty until he comes to a momentous decision.
“In this moment, the Church needs a guide who has the strength to bring great changes, who seeks an encounter with all,” Cardinal Melville, the protagonist and reluctant pontiff, tells the multitude of followers “I feel I am not among those who can lead, but who must be led.”