Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign on February 28 — the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years — setting the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March.
A Vatican official said the Holy See hopes the period between the pope’s resignation and the election of a successor will be “as brief as possible”.
As a long time Dante fan, the first thing that came to mind was the “Great Refusal”, i.e., the resignation of Celestine V in 1294. (And I’m not alone). For same refusal Dante plunked him into the vestibule of hell for indecisiveness.
Although I think that his reasoning is better than Celestine’s, the downside possibilities of the outcome are probably higher now than then. Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular hate to admit it, but Roman Catholicism’s conservatism–in its own way, obviously–has been an anchor for Christianity in general. The danger with each papal election has always been the elevation of a liberal would cut the line on that anchor, which would put Evangelicals in particular in a vulnerable position.
Fortunately both Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, have stacked the College of Cardinals with mostly conservatives. That’s some comfort, but with the opacity of the process (not that our own “open” political system is much of an improvement these days) one never knows. One can only pray. (And, as we all know now, it takes more than someone with the correct idea; it takes someone who can make that idea reality).
One interesting possibility is the election of a pope from the Third World. This is something the Anglicans haven’t managed to pull off even with their skewed numbers. Whether the demands of romanitsia will allow this is a different story altogether.