I have so far refrained from comment on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, preferring to leave that to the Gadarene rush of experts. But there is one observation to make that I have not seen made elsewhere. Why did the Pope allow himself to be elected at the age of 78? He must have known it wouldn’t be many years before age caught up with him and he’d either die or have to retire, or like his predecessor do neither and get too old and sick to be an effective ruler.
Could it have been that Benedict saw himself as the only man for the job at that point in the history of the Church? That a relatively few years of him as Pope would be better than none? Everyone now knows that he had an agenda — a "vision" — that he had begun to pursue as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Did he fear that a Pope other than himself might not continue it? Not that it was an ignoble agenda – quite the opposite: the herculean task of trying to put the Church back on an even keel after half a century of destructive distraction in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Is it fanciful to suppose that the then-Cardinal Ratzinger thought other papal candidates might not give this policy the priority he would give it, as indeed Pope John Paul II had not done?
God moves in a mysterious way and noble ends are not always pursued by the noblest of methods. For all his virtues there is something about Benedict XVI that suggests the wily old schemer. As dean of the College of Cardinals since 2002 did he somehow work the Vatican system, perhaps with the help of our own dear Cardinal Pell, reputedly no slouch as a numbers man, to ensure his own election?
Even if this is a gross calumny and Benedict’s election was the unalloyed inspiration of the Holy Spirit there is another aspect to the matter. There was much talk in the latter years of John Paul II about the likelihood and desirability of a Pope from the Third World. One of the cardinals thought most likely to succeed John Paul was the Nigerian Cardinal Arinze. If he had been elected we would still have a Pope. (He is eighty now, but though only two years older than Benedict was at the time of his elevation, is too old to succeed.)
Yet a Third World Pope is more desirable than ever, and for reasons that have nothing to do with modish notions of racial "justice". The world is not Europe, and a worldwide Church could do with a non-European perspective at the top for a change. But a non-European Pope is also needed for the sake of Europe. Europe is a continent in decline and the Church there is in even swifter decline. Imaginative as is Benedict’s strategy of restoring Catholic identity through liturgical recovery, more direct, popular methods are needed as well. Any revival of Catholicism in Europe is likely to owe at least something to "reverse evangelisation", that is, to old-fashioned missionary activity, with the missionaries coming from places once considered mission fields where the Church is now strong and growing.
Africa is one such place, and an African Pope would understand this and, with luck, do something about it. Eight years ago that Pope could have been Cardinal Arinze. Did the election of Pope Benedict deprive the Church in Europe of a man who could have got the ball rolling again?
If so, there is another candidate waiting in the wings, the young (in papal terms; he is 54) Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson. Though the political machines of the Vatican are even now grinding away, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, as it ever is at papal elections, that the Italians will try to snatch back the papacy for themselves, if I were a cardinal, even an Italian one, I’d want to give Turkson a try.
Christopher Akehurst blogs at Argus