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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Benedict has also already stacked the deck of the College of Cardinals so that it is likely to elect a new Pope of mind and spirit similar to his. Popes usually hold at most one consistory a year--the ceremony at which they announce the appointment of Cardinals, the prelates who elect a new Pontiff--traditionally when the old one has died. In 2012, the Pope held two consistories, which together helped Benedict raise the number of Cardinals he has created during his reign to 90; 67 of them are eligible to cast ballots for his successor, which is more than half of the 117 who will vote in the next conclave. The Vatican has been very careful to say Benedict will not be meddling in the election of the next Pope. But he doesn't have to do a thing. "People say he will not have an influence on the conclave," says Tornielli. "Of course he will. Cardinals must be free when they choose, but of course they will be less free with [Ratzinger] still living." Even a historic choice from Latin America, Africa or Asia is likely to produce a Pope tailored to the conservatism set in place by Benedict.

While every Pope has the opportunity to surprise, the next one will be elected by a conclave trying to divine God's vision while keeping one eye on the retired Pope. Francesco Clementi, author of the 2009 book Vatican City, envisions two scenarios: "A breakaway Pope, an African or Asian, who even if in theological and cultural continuity with Ratzinger will be able to carry out reforms because he is external to the Roman circle; or a continuity Pope, a European who knows how to work the Curia machine and might carry out his reforms with patience and, as it befalls to a young Pope, with time on his side."

Benedict's successor will inherit a long list of problems. The wounds from the priest sexual-molestation scandals are deep, and it may take generations to win back once fervently Catholic nations like Ireland. While Benedict did more than John Paul II to try to make amends for the crimes, he was too much a part of the compromised bureaucracy to truly cleanse the organization. Meanwhile, the church's center of gravity is shifting as the number of Catholics grows in Asia (up 11% from 2005 to 2010) and Africa (up 21%). Responding to the social and political demands of Catholics from those continents will be a challenge for a church still comfortably headquartered in Europe. One fascinating development: some of the most fervid volunteers for Benedict's goal of re-evangelizing secular Europe come from the Philippines and several nations in West and Central Africa.

Meanwhile, the Vatican faces severe challenges in Latin America, where evangelical Protestantism continues to attract new followers and erode the number of Catholics. According to the polling service Latinobarómetro, Latin American countries were 81% Catholic and only 4% evangelical in 1996. By 2010, Catholics had dropped to 70% while evangelicals had risen to 13%. The Protestantism that has caught on there has a decidedly charismatic flair--one that ironically was inspired by John Paul II's infatuation with the Catholic charismatic movement. However, it was the freewheeling Protestant ministries that successfully capitalized on the trend in Latin America, while Benedict focused on policing attempts by local churches--many with leftist enthusiasms--to alter the Catholic liturgy.

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