Yahoo! Exclusive: The Pope’s role won’t change anytime soon, McGill religion professor says

Lindsay Jolivet
Daily Brew

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI last week shook Catholics worldwide. Crowds gathered to express shock, confusion and cry openly at the loss of the first leader to abdicate the papacy in centuries. The media has raised questions about whether Benedict’s decision marks a shift in the church. Could future popes be younger, more progressive – even women?

Not likely, says Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University. The papacy will always be a role governed by the deep-seated traditions of the Catholic Church, he said in an interview with Yahoo! Canada News. This is a condensed version of that discussion.

Y! Canada News: What is the significance of the pope resigning, given that it hasn't happened in 600 years?

Douglas Farrow: It's actually too early to say but certain things can be said. The resignation is the first self-initiated resignation actually, in over 700 years because the last pope to have resigned, or abdicated, which is probably a better term since he doesn't have anyone to submit his resignation to – at least no one on Earth – was a pope who was asked to resign.

The real example here is Celestine V, who was pope near the turn of the 14th century and he had not wanted to be elected pope. He was a hermit and the cardinals were having a very difficult time agreeing on a new pope. They finally pressed him into service but he resigned a few months later, after establishing with his papal authority that it was okay for a pope to resign, if he really needed to.

Benedict actually visited Celestine's tomb a couple of times in the last couple of years and so it's pretty clear that he was thinking of this for some time now.

Benedict may be the first since Peter the hermit – pope Celestine V that is – but he may well not be the last to feel this move needs to be taken.

We shall see. Of course, some people who are aficionados of the St. Malachy prophecy are saying that the next pope will be the last pope, so we shall see about that too, won't we?

[ Related: Pope may change conclave rules before leaving: Vatican ]

Y! Canada News: The last pope, why would that happen?

Farrow: In the 16th century there was discovered, purportedly at any rate, a prophecy of St. Malachy, an Irish bishop from the 12th century who was visiting Rome and purportedly had a vision of the succession of the papacy over the next many centuries, and who numbered these with cryptic Latin phrases indicating each one. As people subsequently traced this, we are now to the last one, at which he prophesized that there will be extreme persecution of the church and the destruction of the city of Rome and the judgement of the world. People don't know whether to take this seriously as some kind of authentic prophecy or whether to take it as an elaborate game played by some monks with too little to do and too much time on their hands.

Y! Canada News: The role of pope seems to have grown and changed in recent years. There’s a papal Twitter account now and the demands on the church to communicate its message seem high. Was Pope Benedict sending a message that someone in his 80s can't handle the demands of the papacy today?

Douglas Farrow: One thing that has to be understood is the role of the Bishop of Rome and of the pope of the Catholic Church is not a role like any other. There's no analogous institution and there's no analogous role. ... The Pope, understood by the church to be the Vicar of Christ, is not simply acting as a figurehead. He's not acting simply as a CEO and he doesn't have any future career to pursue when he's done his task. It's not like that.

Even with this precedent that Benedict is setting, I don't see any change in basic thinking about the papacy and whether popes might put in a spell at it while they're in their 50s or 60s and then go and write books or sit as president of a college somewhere. That's not going to happen. The role is understood as one which one would relinquish only under very special circumstances and I really don't see that changing.

Y! Canada News: What factors come into play when deciding who should be the next pope?

Farrow: There's no doubt that the evolving demands of the papacy will be on everyone's mind. Our modern technology has changed the way the whole world works and the pace at which it works. Perhaps more significantly even than that, the Catholic Church has changed a lot in terms of its own manner of functioning. The papacy was always important but in the last few centuries there has been an evolution in the importance of the papacy which has increased the demands on the pope.

Obviously, as a spiritual leader, the demand for authentic holiness is really important. But as someone who is charged with so many responsibilities for worldwide communion of Christians, the ability linguistically is important; the ability to make decisions with facility is important. The capacity to govern in some basic way as far as it is governable, the Curia, the administrative apparatus in Rome, is going to be very important because there is a lot of reform that is needed as respects the Curia.

Anyone who knows anything about any kind of Italian bureaucracy, never mind the Curia of the Catholic Church, knows that this is a big task.

Obviously these are very, very important times for the church in its expansion in Africa and in Asia, where in both continents the church is growing very rapidly. A hundred years ago, the majority of Catholics lived either in Europe or North America. These days the majority lives elsewhere, in the developing world. This isn't fully reflected in the makeup of the College of Cardinals, which still tends to be dominated by Europeans.

[ Last week's one-on-one: Hayley Wickenheiser predicts women’s pro hockey league within 10 years ]

Y! Canada News: The Canadian media has been discussing Cardinal Marc Ouellet's chances of becoming the next pope. What are your thoughts on that?

Douglas Farrow: We have to assume that he will be amongst the few who are very seriously considered by the conclave. He has exceptional linguistic skills … He's a polyglot. He speaks in several languages and reads in many more. He's also actually lived, and taught, and worked in South America. He has a good grasp of both the European and North American context because of his service here in Quebec as well as his present role as head of the congregation that is responsible to propose new bishops, not throughout the entire world but throughout a good part of it.

Y! Canada News: Will there ever be a woman as pope?

Douglas Farrow: No. The church does not understand this issue as one of gradually catching up with modern sentiments.

The Catholic Church is not going to change its central understanding of the Eucharist or of the ordered ministry of the church in that way. It’s not a question of well, if we get a pope who’s a bit younger and more progressive, so to say, that these kinds of things will move in that direction. It would be so fundamentally different from what the Catholic Church understands the ministry of the priesthood to be that it wouldn’t be the Catholic Church anymore.

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