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A worldwide Catholic conversation that many church-watchers say effectively stopped when Benedict XVI was elected pope eight years ago has been rekindled by his announced plan to resign at month's end.
Celibacy. Women's roles. Same-sex marriage. Clergy sexual abuse revelations.
And, perhaps most significantly, the spectacular growth of the church in the more religiously conservative "global south" — Latin America, Africa and Asia — while its fortunes continue to decline in the increasingly secular West.
"It's the Catholic Church's 'Obama moment,' if you will," says David Gibson, who has covered the Vatican since the 1980s and is author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.
The historically Europe-centered church is shifting to one of the Southern Hemisphere, says Gibson, an independent writer specializing in Catholicism, whose work has appeared in publications ranging from Fortune to the Religion News Service. "By choosing a brown pope, as it were, they would send a real message, a remarkable statement to the wider church."
That the end of the current pope's reign would come with predictions of the possibility of dramatic change is not surprising to papal historians like Roger Collins, author of Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy.
"Benedict XVI was clearly a transitional choice by a conclave of cardinals that did not know in what new direction it ought to go," says Collins, an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
'Moment For A Transition'
The German pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, was in many ways seen as providing an extension of sorts to Pope John Paul II's rule. Ratzinger was, after all, Collins notes, his Polish predecessor's executive, "or 'enforcer.' "
"Choosing him postponed making more radical choices, or even a divisive election between opposing forces in the College of Cardinals," Collins says. "This coming conclave will be a very important one, in that the decisions postponed in 2005 will now have to be made."
And it presents the church a historic opportunity to appoint a different kind of pope, says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, one who might not be a European and who might represent a demographic that's a "growth area for the church."
More than 28 percent of the world's 1.19 billion Catholics now reside in South America; and more than 15 percent live in Africa. Asians still represent just under 11 percent of worldwide Catholics but are the church's second-fastest-growing demographic, trailing only Africa.
By contrast, just over 7 percent of Catholics call North America home, while nearly 24 percent of Catholics live in Europe, though their percentage is falling.
Pope Benedict XVI may well have recognized, says Green, that this could be an "opportune moment for a transition," a transition that he stands to have "some kind of influence over," although the current pope will not participate in deliberations on his successor.
"This moment presents a really interesting dynamic of increasing ethnic diversity and theological disputes in the Catholic Church," he says. "Many Christians, including Catholics, from the global south are very conservative, but when it comes to economic issues, they are much more progressive, much more liberal."
"I wouldn't know how it's going to resolve itself," he says.
The church also faced competition in Latin America from Pentecostal churches, and in Africa from the Muslim faith.
Change, or Status Quo?
The prospect, if not promise, of change and more open discussions with a new pope is one welcomed by Catholics like Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Reporter.
"The next pope needs to address these issues, which aren't just American issues," says Coday, adding that under Benedict XVI, "all discussion has been shut down."
"We're saying that it cannot be a closed discussion anymore — and it's not just our paper saying that," he said.
He notes that priests have been removed from the ministry because they support the ordination of women, and some women have been excommunicated for the same, he said.
The pope has clashed with Catholic nuns he accused of straying from the church's teachings; and American bishops have become aggressively involved in political efforts to block the legalization of same-sex marriage.
There have been some signals, Coday says, that a handful of church leaders, including the conservative Christoph Schonborn of Austria, have already begun seeking routes to deal with dissent short of confrontation and removal of priests who publicly question church teaching.
In 2012, Schonborn, for example, did not remove dissident priests who vocally supported a priests' "Call to Disobedience" on issues including the church positions on homosexuality and female priests. The priests, however, were barred from serving as heads of local deaneries.
And that may be a model going forward; maintain conservatism, work on style.
A Non-European Pope?
No one expects the church, or the new pope, to change position on dogma, to ordain women as priests, for example, Gibson says.
But cultivating a conversation, and looking to focus on an issue like social justice that unites Catholics, and resonates particularly in countries of the global south, and being more open to the participation of lay men and women in certain forms of ministry could temper criticism the church has faced on cultural issues in the U.S. and Europe.
"This is also a stylistic question," says Gibson. "People send powerful messages without changing policies."
Green, of Pew, says that the magnitude of the world's demographic change is so large that it can't be ignored by any religion.
"All religious institutions have to change with the world," he says. "How do they maintain their traditions and still adapt? It's tough."
Catholics, and their new pope, will struggle with a divided reality. Social issues including same-sex marriage, as well as the ordination of women, are important to church members in the Western World. And, just to note, the U.S. and Germany are the top two donors to the Vatican, and supply the majority of funding for the Holy See, Green says.
But in the church's growth areas, in South America, Asia and Africa, Catholics are more conservative on those cultural issues, although church-watchers say they face a severe priest shortage that suggests they are more open to a lifting of celibacy rules for priests.
Benedict XIV's Legacy
Though seen largely as a conservative enforcer of the status quo, the outgoing pope, in resigning while of sound mind and body, leaves an enormous legacy.
It will be Joseph Ratzinger, historians say, who will be viewed as the person who changed forever the role, and the mystery, of pope.
"His abdication is a game changer," says Collins, of the University of Edinburgh.
Says Eamon Duffy, author of Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, in emailed comments: "Benedict has liberated his successors to think of their election as a fixed term appointment, and he has liberated the Cardinal electors, with the realization that the Church is not necessarily stuck with their choice 'til death do us part."
"It is a major step," Duffy said, "to reintegrating the papacy into a working ecclesiology, in which a pope's competence is something which even loyal Catholics are entitled to discuss."
A game changer, a real legacy, a redefinition of the papacy, Green says, noting that when Pope John Paul II was asked if he should resign he responded that Christ himself did not come down from the cross.
"This pope has opened the door for future popes to see this as an office, rather than a cult," he says. "And given that Joseph Ratzinger has done it, it's difficult for his conservative fans to dispute it."