On Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI offered his final General Audience address in St. Peter’s Square. As soon as Monday, the College of Cardinals will begin the process of selecting a new pope—a decision that will present the Catholic Church with the opportunity to either maintain the status quo or propel itself into an increasingly modern, liberal age.
Elected at the age of 78, Pope Benedict XVI is the oldest man to be elected to the papacy since Pope Clement XII in 1730. The role of pope involves extensive work, travel, and communication, all of which require physical health and mental endurance. Perhaps Benedict XVI’s retirement from the pontifical throne will set a precedent for the Church of selecting younger popes in the future. Moreover, the papal resignation provides a unique opportunity for the pope to advise his successor, which will foster a continuity within the Church that has been historically absent.
Pope Benedict XVI was selected over other, more forward-looking papal contenders—a decision the College of Cardinals will hopefully not repeat. This time, progressive candidates, as well as minorities and cardinals from areas outside of Western Europe, will be among the discussed contenders.
Latin America, a region that is home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholic population, has several contenders, including Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras, 70, known for his fight against poverty. The selection of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., 76, is highly implausible. The Church continues to knock heads with the Society of Jesus, which it considers to be too freethinking. The selection of a Jesuit could provide an interesting and maybe even revolutionary opportunity for reform within the Church.
The first African pope since the first century A.D. could come in the form of Ghanian Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64. Though his election would be a racial victory, it would also be a loss in terms of progression; Turkson is known for his opposition to the use of condoms to avoid HIV transmission. Thankfully, in 2010 the Church decided the use of condoms, for both homo- and heterosexuals, was a preferable alternative to spreading HIV infection.
Ironically, one of the most progressive candidates is Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71. An advocate for involving the Catholic Church in economic and bioethical challenges of society, Scola is known for his push for the Church to take a more active role in appealing to the modern world.
The Catholic Church has the potential to alter its stance on contraception, LGBT individuals, and women’s ordination within the next few decades, and this papal selection will be crucial in determining which course the Church will take. While a regionally or ethnically diverse pope could provide new opportunities for the Catholic Church to reevaluate its role in the world, perhaps these considerations should be forgone for a more progressive candidate, regardless of his origin. In order to remain relevant and maintain its scope of influence in an increasingly modern era, the Church must do more to actively engage with its followers—including electing a pope capable of communicating and considering the wealth of opinions encompassed by the Catholic Church.