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As Pope Benedict XVI steps down, Seattle Catholics look to future

Faithful are reflected in the roof of Pope Benedict XVI's pope-mobile as he arrives to celebrate his last general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. Benedict XVI basked in an emotional sendoff Wednesday at his final general audience in St. Peter's Square, recalling moments of "joy and light" during his papacy but also times of great difficulty. He also thanked his flock for respecting his decision to retire. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

This is the week that Pope Benedict XVI steps down, and there are all sorts of hopes and fears among Catholics.

In the Seattle Archdiocese, one of the big question is the fate into the investigation of American nuns.

Vatican officials accused the largest organization of U.S. nuns of challenging church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

Last April, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain was appointed to lead the investigation.

We haven’t yet learned of any conclusions.

Dr. Mark Markuly is the Dean of Seattle University’s school of theology and ministry, and he’s betting that whoever becomes Pope, the nun investigation will soften.

“I think the tone of that investigations is quite likely going to change. I think the rhetoric of the study that was done, that surrounded it, ended up kind of escalating. My guess will be it will be toned down considerably.”

As for what else the pope might do, that of course depends on who the cardinals pick. There are some radical candidates who are ready to be activists — but not on issues like a female priesthood, or gay rights, but on economic issues.

“The radical nature of the next pope will probably be around social justice – particularly if it’s a pope that comes out of the developing world.”

Does social justice mean that he’ll come out and wag his fingers at the richer nations and say, ‘It’s time for you to share some of the wealth?’

“You bet,” said Markuly. “And I think that’s almost guaranteed.”

But the impact goes beyond Catholics. Prof. Michael Kinnamon is not only a professor at the Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. Until 2011, he was the head of the National Council of Churches, a collection of progressive protestant denominations and he shocked me when he said he hoped for a broader papacy that could eventually lead not just the Catholic Church, but the protestant churches. He referred to issues raised by Pope John Paul II in the 90’s which talked about a wider papacy.

“He talks about the possibility of discussing with others what a future papacy would look like that would give leadership to the whole of a wider Christian church. That’s a very exciting offer,” said Kinnamon.

“If the future church, (churches beyond Roman Catholic,) if it’s exercised in a way that’s consistent with how the Catholic Church speaks of it’s own ecclesiology, or sense of church that is in communion, a reciprocal relationship among different parts of the church with a pope serving as the one who guarantees the unity of that whole, then yeah. We’re interested in talking about that. I would very much hope we would have someone who invites that conversation. I would hope for that.”

Kinnamon said considering how far the Church has moved in the past 60 years it’s not such a crazy idea.

“I think back to when I was a child. I thought the Catholic Church was a kind of foreign religion. I never stepped foot in a Catholic Church until I was in college. It was almost like a secret society. I suspect their were lots of Catholics who grew up with that same mindset about protestants. So when you think back, about what’s happened over the last 50 years, it’s been astonishing. That came from the Second Vatican Council when the Decree on Ecumenism opened the door to relationships with other Christians. That decree spoke about how we undermine our witness to the prince of peace by not living peaceably with each other and that was driven by Pope John XXIII and his successor Pope Paul VI.”

Kinnamon’s concern is that under Pope Benedict the church has pulled back, “Because of John Paul II there was a real flourishing of the ecumenical dialogue. But now, I may be getting [into] more hot water here, the last 10 years have been ambiguous.”

Even if the papacy doesn’t expand to embrace other churches, Kinnamon said what the pope says still matters to protestants like him.

“You have the most obvious example in 1983,” explained Kinnamon. “When the Catholic bishops in this country issued a major statement on nuclear disarmament, on war and peace issues. It stimulated protestants across the country to issue similar statements of the next five, six, seven years. There’s no doubt we were teaching that document in protestant seminaries and learning from it across the churches. So what the Catholic Church says, matters.”

As to the process of selecting a pope – it’s impossible to know who’s even in the running.

According to Markuly, “There’s an old saying in the Catholic Church: that if you go into the conclave as a pope, you come out as a cardinal. It’s forbidden by cannon law that you actually lobby for the position. There are very few cardinals that actually know how the papacy works in the modern period who would even want the job.

“It’s not like the Oscars?” I asked. Where they all take out ads in the Vatican Observer saying, ‘Vote for me! or ‘For your consideration.’

“No actually,” said Markuly. “The archbishop in Canada, Marc Ouellet, he’s been named, and he’s actually probably positioned well. He’s fluent in about eight languages, was a missionary in Latin America, has a really global vision of Catholicism. He was on record a number of years ago when people asked him about whether he’d be interested in the position, and he said he thought it would be a crushing position.”

But Kinnamon said if you’re a Catholic and trying to figure out who to root for, he advises not using a litmus test – don’t just run down a list of issues and root for whoever believes as you do. What’s more important is the pope’s personality and integrity.

“We should be asking, ‘Is the person one whose characteristics seek God’s will with discernment and intelligence in the next period and to listen carefully to the rest of the church?’ That’s what I would want to know.”

Read more:
Pope recalls ‘joy,’ difficulties in final audience

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