We have a pope, yes. We will shortly have another, though barring the death of the current Pontifex Maximus he (there's no she, of course) will ascend (there can be no other word) to the Throne of St. Peter while his predecessor yet lives. As we all know by now, this is quite unusual in the long history of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The last time it took place was when there was more than one pope, which must have rendered things somewhat messy. What a time that must have been, with the highest priests excommunicating one another. Excommunication meant something then, but not perhaps as much as it did when a Holy Roman Emperor stood in the snow at Canossa, seeking penance.
That was just a Holy Roman Emperor, of course; the emperor of something neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire as has been famously said. It's hard to imagine a real emperor of the real Rome doing the same, even after Christianity so ruthlessly suppressed the pagan religions and divergent Christian creeds. It happens that the last time there was a resignation, or abdication, the Church was in its slow decline as a secular power. It's astonishing it still wields power of a sort even now.
That's what makes this interesting, I think. But there has also always been a fascination with the pope, the Vatican, and the huge male bureaucracy of the Church, which is in a sense a remnant of the Roman Empire itself. If it is a dead thing, it is shrouded in history. There is no institution quite like it. In a way, it is a ghost of the ancient West, but a restless ghost that actively haunts us.
Benedict's decision is probably wise. He's unquestionably old, and if he's sick as well, let him have his rest. John Paul II became a pitiable figure. Perhaps he felt that his deterioration would somehow inspire the world, but I think not. I've seen deterioration, and it is uninspiring.
It seems Europe has lost much of its religiosity. Catholicism in America is a strange thing. "Cafeteria Catholics" abound. There are few strident, militant, ecstatic or devoted Catholics here, Opus Dei notwithstanding. We love our conspiracy theories, of course, so there will always be those who read The Da Vinci Code or watch television shows devoted to some such things, but this is not an expression of the power of the Church. Those who proclaim the United States to be a Christian nation don't seem to be Catholics. But it seems the Church is still a growing thing in what's called the developing world. That is presumably where the focus of the Church should be, then, but it's difficult to believe the next pope will be of the developing world. If he is, that will be remarkable indeed. Nonetheless, if the future of the Church lies with those Catholics outside of Europe and North America, some acknowledgement of this will be necessary if the Church is to survive.
The Church has seen much and weathered a great deal over its long history. It will likely weather the horror of priestly abuse of children and the perpetuation of it for which the institution bears responsibility. There's not much it can do now, I think, in terms of opening its windows unless it does something like dispense with celibacy or allow women priests. Lately, we've seen forbearance of the saying of the Latin mass. Perhaps we'll see a resurgence of traditional Catholicism. I tend to think that the grasp of Rome will weaken, and the Church will become more localized, with congregations doing more and more of what they think is appropriate.
We should pay it some attention, though. While the Church in its infancy was influenced by the entire culture of the ancient Mediterranean, which may be said to have included that of the Near East and Egypt, as it grew and aged it became Latinized, a creature as it were of the Western empire and of the barbarian nations which replaced it. It extended its sway as Europe did. It became entirely Western in its goals and orientation. What we see of it in the future may well be part of the death throes of a purely Western civilization.