Apparently the Pope is resigning. Which is, well, earth-shattering. It's been something like six centuries since a Pope has resigned at all, and two centuries more since a Pope has done so voluntarily. (The 15th century occurrence was the resolution to a schism, so it's hard to call it voluntary.)
I respect Pope Benedict XVI's decision to step down. Whatever the motivation, both inward and outward recognition that one is no longer able to fulfill a role in the way that one desires to fulfill it is incredibly difficult, and few people have the strength of character to do so, especially when it involves giving up that kind of power. My respect for Pope Benedict's decision only deepens when I think about the way that Pope John Paul II carried on in failing health, and the cost that the church may have paid for not having a vigorous leader during his failing years. Being willing to step down when no longer effective shows a love for the church over love for self, and that is something I can admire.
However, given the timing of his resignation, the Pope's decision to step down provides an opportunity for the church to heal some of the wounds of the abuse scandal.
In some ways, it doesn't really matter whether or not this was his intention, so I'm not going to speculate about that. At this moment, many in the church (and many outside it) are hurting from the church's indifference and inattention toward the very real wounds of the laity. I grew up in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles under Cardinal Roger Mahoney. My parents made weekly donations to their parish throughout the 80's, 90's, and 00's (as they continue doing today). Some of that money went to the diocese. Some of that money went to covering up abuse. Maybe only a very small portion of it, but at some point that doesn't matter. The church has a moral obligation. The church has not only allowed child abuse, but it has abused the trust of the people who support it. The church needs reconciliation, and it needs real contrition from the hierarchy who made such hurtful choices.
Throughout the middle ages, bishops were not appointed by the Pope, but instead appointed locally. I think the church should go back to direct election of bishops. Even if the elections were made entirely by the priests, monks, and women religious of each diocese, rather than the parishioners, this would be a huge improvement. It would give us the accountability we so desperately need. Because where the church has no accountability to the people, the church looses her authority. And she has been losing that authority at a remarkably rapid pace over the last decades, whether or not church leaders are able to recognize it.
At the very least, I would like to see the cardinals who covered up crimes in their diocese--starting with Cardinal Law and Cardinal Mahoney--recuse themselves from the upcoming conclave. Honestly, they should step down. They ceded their moral authority a long time ago, and they ought to have the courage to serve the church by stepping down.
Unfortunately, the hierarchy of the church is famously insular. If it wasn't, people like me wouldn't be calling for such major changes in the way that the church is run. So I don't have much real expectation that the bishops and cardinals will be able to see how they could serve their church by stepping down and restoring moral accountability. They have a real opportunity to restore the church's moral authority, to make it a real example, a real beacon of light.
The Pope is stepping down for health reasons. He maintains his dignity, and in his willingness to give away the power and authority of his office, he gains another kind of authority, and another kind of respect. I wish that the the bishops and cardinals who have cared more for their miters than their flocks could expand upon that example of humility, and resign their offices not because they are in bad health, but because through their own decisions they have compromised their ability to perform their offices.
Unfortunately, I have more faith in the cardinals' myopia than in their selflessness, as it was their myopia that so badly harmed the church to begin with. There is an incredible opportunity here for bishops and cardinals who have done terrible things to not only atone, but to serve the church and give her new authority, to strengthen her into a vessel with a chance of flourishing in the modern world. On the face of it, I have little hope of seeing these opportunities realized. The cardinals are more likely to believe that stepping down would tar the Pope's image than they are to see even a fraction of the opportunity before them. But God works in mysterious ways, and in faith I cannot relinquish hope. Not for now, and not for all the years to come. In the meantime, non habemus papam.