I suppose it would be too much to ask for the Catholic Church to simply close up shop once Pope Benedict officially steps down, eh?
The important thing to keep in mind in the wake of the once-and-future Joseph Ratzinger's surprise announcement that he'll be abdicating the papacy is that it's likely going to change nothing about the Catholic Church. Yes, it's an interesting and eyebrow-raising development, one that caps off a tumultuous eight year run for the current pontiff and the church in general, but let's face it: Expecting that a new man at the top of the Catholic food chain will mean the sudden embracing of new ideas of right and wrong, of morality and modernity, would be sheer folly. The church has existed in its present state, for the most part impervious to human enlightenment and the march of progress, for centuries. Maybe the next pope will deliver the traditional canon and ancient edicts of Catholicism with the kindly smile, avuncular tone and all-around media savvy of John Paul II -- rather than through the thoroughly creepy Galactic Emperor sneer Benedict has terrified the world with for almost a decade -- but in the end the canon and edicts will be exactly the same. The messenger will change -- the message will stay the same.
It's actually tough to write about the end of the Benedict era or about the Catholic Church in general because there are so many moments where you feel like you want to stop yourself because you just can't believe you're taking any of it seriously. If you're a semi-reasonable person you can't help but wonder why the hell you're bothering to attempt to speak logically and rationally about a group of people who put on ridiculously ornate robes and big colorful hats and debate at length the magical creator of the universe's views on human beings eating meat on Fridays and whether or not the place you go after you die has a waiting room. What the Catholic Church has to say about important topics affecting mankind shouldn't, in a sane world, matter any more than the rantings of a mental patient. Paying deference to the church's often dangerous proclamations, which it issues under the guise of being the most moral institution in existence, is almost incomprehensible when you consider all we know about the universe in the year 2013.
And yet many still listen to the Catholic Church. They still believe. Despite the fact that over the past several years the ethical authority of the church has been burned to the ground from the inside out -- and the priest sex abuse scandal is really just the most recent of the church's grotesque misdeeds -- there are many who still adhere strictly to its tenets and accept its central message as one of incomparable value. The Catholic Church's influence has waned significantly over the last decade or so, but it's still a startlingly powerful entity.
And that's why whoever it chooses to succeed Pope Benedict should be important. It should be, but for the most part it isn't, because it's almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which the changing times or the will of mere mortals will impact the decision-making of the next head of the Catholic Church. The church takes its instruction from a nearly 2,000-year-old book and the ironclad tradition its created from that book's core principles. While a personally popular pope can strike a compassionate pose in issuing the church's commands, those commands will almost surely remain as they've always been. To adjust the actual thinking of the Catholic Church on issues like abortion, birth control, homosexuality and women in its ranks would be to essentially do away with the need for the church in the first place. As far as the next pope is concerned, God's will doesn't evolve just because human thinking does. The classic positions of the church aren't going anywhere. In the new millennium, they'll be as meaninglessly anachronistic as ever and holding fast to them will only further the church's rush toward irrelevancy in the minds of many and a situation where the remaining faithful pick and choose the Catholic tenets they choose to subscribe to while discarding the rest.
Maybe, if the world is lucky, the next pope won't be so stubborn in the face of overwhelming evidence of children being sexually abused by priests or even complicit in the cover-up of those priests' actions. Benedict's entire career, unfortunately, was tainted by the choices he made with regard to the sickening series of assaults throughout the years. I think a no-tolerance policy toward that special brand of evil and a spotless record on the subject is the best we can hope for from Benedict's successor. Because when it comes to church policy, a man at the top willing to use his supposed Christ-endowed infallibility to effect real change would, quite frankly, be nothing short of a miracle.