Shock is probably the predominant emotion evoked by the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign at the end of February. Given that the last papal resignation took place 600 years ago, it’s understandable that the world has got used to the idea that being pope is a life sentence. Indeed, previous popes seem to have got used to it as well. Some of them, including Benedict’s immediate predecessor, were martyrs to the job, and not entirely metaphorically.

Suspicion is another reaction, less common perhaps but rife in high places. Mr Piers Morgan, himself a Catholic (who knew?), tweeted his suspicion that there was more to Benedict’s resignation than met the eye. This is an insight into Piers Morgan, but also into a certain sort of modern mind that cannot quite believe in such things as modesty, humility, and indeed resignation.

But a surprisingly common response, especially among conservative Catholics and their fellow-travellers in other denominations, is some variation on regret, sadness, or disappointment. Insofar as these feelings arise because the Pope leaves to his successor a number of unsolved problems they had hoped he would solve as the heir to John Paul II, they are justified even if, as we shall see, such hopes were unrealistic in the first place. But there seems to be a still deeper sense of disappointment at play. Not only devout Catholics are accustomed to treating a pope almost as a kind of premature saint. The secular media do it as well, except when they are seeking evidence of his hypocrisy or portraying him as an obstacle to progress. Benedict’s resignation undermines this pious illusion. It is a sign that he is demystifying the papacy in a modest and desirable way. He is saying that while every Christian should aspire to sainthood, being pope is no more and no less a step to it than the faithful performance of any God-given vocation. And the papal vocation, while it demands holiness, demands a great many other things too. His resignation is the latest (perhaps the final) stage in the papacy’s two-century shedding of temporal power and its trappings of spiritual monarchy. It is also an argument that if a pope cannot perform all or most of the tasks required of him, then retirement — which is specifically permitted under canon law, incidentally — becomes something to consider, even a duty, despite any preference the faithful might have for the image of a suffering saint.

To see the force of this argument in the modern world, imagine a job description for the post of Roman Pontiff: ‘Applications are invited for the position of Chief Executive Officer of a multinational religious corporation. The successful applicant should have advanced degrees in theology and philosophy, experience in business administration, facility in ancient and modern languages, theoretical and practical knowledge of diplomacy, proven ability in the use of mass media, exceptional political skills (both public and bureaucratic), physical fitness and (if possible) sporting ability, and an unblemished reputation for both virtue and respectability. (Exceptions to the last requirement might be made for those candidates who, though they admit early and even extravagant lapses, can demonstrate a full recovery, either through sustained repentance or by miraculous intervention, attested to in both cases by no fewer than five witnesses of high standing in the community.)’

How many of these qualities — and you can probably add some I’ve forgotten — did Pope Benedict possess? I count five of the eight. He was by all accounts a brilliant theologian. He spoke innumerable languages. He had experience of business administration and diplomacy in his long years in the Vatican bureaucracy. And his reputation as a good and decent man has never been seriously challenged. But he has been frail for some time. Though he got better at using the mass media, he was never really good at it. And he was repeatedly frustrated in dealing with the many problems he inherited by an obstructive bureaucracy (both in the Vatican and in national episcopal conferences) that he only fitfully managed to outwit or to master.

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So Benedict dealt with the problems he inherited with courage, honesty and surprising dispatch, but often in the face of resistance. That was especially true of the child sex abuse scandals. After an investigation that left him horrified, Benedict not only offered victims and their families sincere apologies; he strengthened canon law to compel Church authorities to inform the police of abuse accusations; and he investigated and condemned powerful figures who had managed to escape censure. But though his zeal never weakened, his energy and ability to pursue crime and the criminals through the ecclesiastical machine did. It may seem strange beyond understanding that a bureaucracy should obstruct such an essential cause in order to defend the institution, its own privileges, and — worse — its guilty favourites. If we want to understand it by analogy, however, we might consider the defensive reactions of both Labour and Tory politicians to the news that several thousand people have died needlessly and wrongfully as a result of abuse and neglect in National Health Service hospitals. A desire to defend the NHS itself against criticism and a reluctance to hold the guilty to account — their reactions are eerily similar to those of the Vatican bureaucracy, without even the excuse that people accused of serious crimes deserve the legal presumption of innocence. The gentle Benedict was tougher than that.

Alas, the child abuse scandal was only one matter on which he struggled against clerical resistance. His decision to permit wider use of the Tridentine Mass had to overcome strong opposition from liturgical progressives. Yet as the Economist was astounded to discover, it now attracts large and disproportionately young congregations. Once he realised that conventional ecumenism was at a dead end — but that Anglicans worldwide were looking for an orthodox haven — Benedict created the Ordinariate to allow such converts to retain their beautiful liturgy. England’s Catholic bishops dragged their feet — whether from conventional ecumenism or liturgical progressivism it is hard to say. And the determined liberalism of many European bishops and their conferences hindered the Pope’s fondest ambition (one he shared with John Paul II) — the re-evangelisation of Europe. It is hard to exaggerate this failure or the sadness it must have caused him. The current state of Catholicism is one in which its churches in Europe are almost empty, its churches in America filled with worshippers half of whom routinely ignore its prescriptions without guilt, and its churches in the ‘global south’ packed with unqualified believers in the divinity of Christ, the sinfulness of sex outside marriage, and the need for a personal relationship with the Divine.

His admirers can point, however, to two contributions Benedict made that may in time change such trends for the better. The first is his extraordinary intellectual contribution to Catholic (and wider philosophical) thought about the foundations of all belief in his three encyclicals and in speeches like the one he gave in Westminster Hall. His critique of relativism, his insistence that religion must combine faith and reason, his condemnation of religious fundamentalism (which he defined as faith that disregards reason), his argument that God cannot act contrary to the love and reason that define His nature — these and other arguments have had an impact on agnostics and atheists as well as on the faithful. They provide all Europeans with a nonsecular basis for a peaceful dialogue with Islam (though the reaction to his Regensburg speech suggests that Muslims find even a peaceful challenge to Islam hard to accommodate). They confront evangelical Protestants with the need to stiffen a faith of the heart with logic and tradition. And Continental Europe now boasts thinkers who call themselves ‘Catholic atheists’, as a result in part of Benedict’s philosophical writings and dialogues with non-Catholics such as Jürgen Habermas and Senator Marcello Pera. (Toby Young seemed to flirt with something similar in Tuesday’s Telegraph blog.) A Catholic atheist is hardly in a stationary position. We can only guess where he — and Europe — will end up.

The second contribution of Benedict’s that may change the future is his selection of the papal electorate. All the cardinals who can vote were selected either by Benedict or John Paul II, which means that the conclave is weighted towards theological conservatism and a general caution. Among the other results of this tilt is that the Catholic Church in England and Wales will have no vote in the papal conclave, since the last Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster, who is above the voting age limit at 80, and his successor, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, who has not yet received his Red Hat, are both theological liberals. So no English pope.

Nor is an African or Latin American cardinal, though several are touted as papabile, likely to emerge from the cloud of white smoke. Though such a pope would reflect the reality that two-thirds of Catholics live in the global south, a more pressing reality is that American and European cardinals outnumber those from Asia, Africa and Latin America by 75 to 41. Italy alone has half as many cardinals as the entire global south (and that’s if you include Australia’s formidable Cardinal Pell in the latter.) So the smart money is that the next pope will be drawn from the 21 Italian cardinals who are said to feel that two alien popes in a row amounts to anti-Italian discrimination. And they can call in chits from a friendly US church.

Betting on a papal conclave is, however, a mug’s game. The choice is heavily steered by the Holy Ghost, who, being related to an obscure family from Nazareth, often plumps for an outsider. All one can reasonably argue is that the choice is weighted towards another conservative — theological, bureaucratic, or both — from the global north.

This is plainly alarming to the Church’s liberals and presumably to liberals outside. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor hinted as much when he told the Daily Telegraph this week that he hoped the next pope, while avoiding radicalism, would ‘steer away from saying “we condemn this, we condemn that”’ on sexual matters such as contraception. The Cardinal predicted that he would instead say ‘there are ways . . .’. Oxford’s Diarmaid MacCulloch, less hopefully, predicted ‘another conservative pope — perhaps the last before a great explosion in the Church’. But what will happen before or after the dust settles?

Europe’s empty churches and America’s silently dismissive congregations are arguments for the Church’s bending towards liberalism. But how likely are these liberals to transmit their kind of Catholicism to their children and grandchildren? The example of mainstream Protestant Churches that have made a similar peace is hardly encouraging. They gradually morph into social service agencies. And today they face growing competition from the conservative Christianity of the global south — Catholic, Anglican and evangelical Protestant — that is today not only expanding locally but also exporting itself and its doctrines northwards.

As a result, George Weigel, the biographer of John Paul II, predicts the shaping of an ‘evangelical Catholicism’ that, if it defeats its liberal rival, would be a more emotional, committed, passionate, and mission-driven Catholicism — ‘a culture-forming counterculture’ in a post-Christian society that is increasingly Christophobic. If Weigel is correct, then Benedict has assisted the growth of this Catholicism in two ways. He has humbly made way for the kind of vigorous, businesslike, aggressive leadership it will need in a hostile or uncomprehending modern world — think of a Catholic John Wesley. He has reinforced the case for the centrality of reason in any kind of Catholicism, but especially in one that depends in part on evangelical commitment.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated