Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is a surprisingly bold move from someone not known as a modernizer. But his recognition that he was no longer up to the challenges of the Catholic Church was a thoroughly modern leadership move—and one that other aging leaders would do well to emulate. The fact that he’s the first pope in nearly 600 years to avail himself of retirement (the last one to resign, Pope Gregory XII, did so in 1415 to end a schism in the Church) is—to say the least—historic.
Pope Benedict’s resignation offers the opportunity for another historic moment: the appointment of a pope from the developing world. Calls for a pope from the developing world reflect the changing landscape of the faithful. Today, some 70 percent of Catholics live in developing countries, and the populations of those countries are growing at a much faster rate than the aging societies of Europe and North America. It’s hard not to see that the future of the Catholic Church is increasingly in the developing world.
During the last conclave that ultimately chose Pope Benedict in 2005, some candidates from the developing world appeared to be in the running. Speculation around potential successors for Pope Benedict has already begun, and bookmakers such as Ladbrokes in Britain, known for taking bets on sports, are energetically coming up with odds. Two current contenders from the developing world are Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana (the leading contender, according to some) and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria (though his age may count against him); cardinals from Honduras, Argentina, the Philippines, and Brazil are also said to be possibilities.
A pope from the developing world will not necessarily usher in a more progressive stance on contentious development issues like birth control. Indeed, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has undertaken particularly active efforts to block access to contraceptives, putting the Church in opposition to many of the faithful (in the recent past, around 70 percent of people in the Philippines favored a bill that would extend access to contraceptives and support the teaching of sex ed in schools). When the parliament of the Philippines finally passed legislation in December 2012 to increase access to contraceptives, it was in spite of the strongest objections from the Catholic Church.
However, a pope from the developing world could bring a more tangible understanding of the critical importance of the Church’s on-the-ground antipoverty and development work. While Pope Benedict’s legacy is yet to be assessed, it is clear that he had a tin ear on these issues. On his first trip to Africa in 2009, he ignited a firestorm of controversy by claiming that condom use could actually make the fight against HIV/AIDS worse. The pope’s pronouncement on such topics is not just a matter of doctrine. In sub-Saharan Africa, where some 22 million people are infected with HIV, the church’s insistence on abstinence as the means of combating AIDS has divided the clergy.
The reality is that the Catholic Church plays a vital on-the-ground role in many places and situations where few others are willing to serve. Many of its nuns, priests, and other affiliates are not only faith leaders, but also aid workers on the front lines of some of the harshest conditions, making deep sacrifices to serve the poorest of the poor. A pope from the developing world–like Ghana’s Peter Turkson–would hardly overturn doctrine but could perhaps have a more nuanced understanding of the realities of modern life. Indeed, when Turkson was asked his views on contraception after Pope Benedict claimed that condoms were not helpful in the AIDS crisis, he yielded ground by suggesting that they could be useful in preventing infection between married partners.
The decision on the next pope is up to the 117 voting members of the College of Cardinals. While excitement builds about the prospect of the first African, Asian, or Latin American pope, history is on the side of another European. But no one expected Pope Benedict XVI to resign, so I’m keeping open the possibility of another bold move.