Second Act

How Benedict XVI may become more influential after his resignation

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Alessia Giuliani / CPP / Polaris

Benedict XVI, a reformer and a traditionalist, offers an example of Christian piety

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Indeed, the social dynamic of a retired Pope living a short distance from the reigning one--or at least a mobile-phone call away--is a situation no one really quite knows how to handle. Who has precedence when they are both in the same room? Presumably, the ex-Pope will still have the intellectual acumen that led the Cardinals to elect him in the first place, a mind empowered with the God-given talent to discern proper doctrine, infallible or otherwise. Has the power of that intellection been vacated as well? And will a church of believers who invested so much in the persona of the former and still living Pope be able to share its enthusiasm with the new Pontiff? "The former Pope in the Vatican will be a formidable weight on the shoulder of his successor," says Andrea Tornielli, Vatican correspondent for La Stampa and a historian. Decisions on matters as weighty as foreign travel and the subjects of encyclicals to the appointment of papal courtiers, Curia bureaucrats and household staff could be affected.

The new Pope will be indebted to Benedict XVI. The conclave that will elect a successor is scheduled to start on March 15, and even though he won't be in the Sistine Chapel when the voting takes place, Benedict is bound to influence the outcome. This sort of informal influence has proved powerful in other cultures--particularly premodern Japan, where retired shoguns and Emperors continued to make pivotal decisions. Thus, just by watching from the sidelines, Ratzinger will be subtly able to champion his conservative theological and social policies--an über-Pope of sorts. Says Tornielli: "I can hardly imagine Ratzinger's successor, with Ratzinger still living, reversing one of Ratzinger's decisions. Not because he is still [in the Vatican] but because he is still alive. It opens a whole range of problems that are not so easily resolved." The resulting continuity of the old Pope's agenda may contribute to the future shape of the global Catholic Church, the consistency of its theology and social policies and how future Popes will rule in this new century.

Benedict's Specifications

By choosing to step down, benedict has introduced a whole new calculus into the choice of the next Pope. "I think the Cardinals who come here are going to look at the papacy differently because of this," says John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, the news agency of U.S. bishops. "It doesn't mean that every Pope will have to resign at age 85, but it will mean a future Pope might resign at age 75. It could bring the Cardinals to look at much younger candidates because they know that resignation is an option."

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