Analysis: What is the role of a modern pope?

A priest holds a Holy Communion wafer

In his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI admitted that he no longer has the strengths adequately to fulfill his role. But what is the role of the Pope and why is it so demanding, ask theologians Dr Simon Oliver and Dr Samuel Kimbriel of the University of Nottingham.

The Pope's vocation is spiritual, but one that requires not merely vigour in prayer but also in intellectual and political leadership for Catholics around the world.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his resignation address, this is due in large part to the needed public and political interventions in a world "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith".

Health and vitality, Benedict argues, are needed in a papal vocation, which also requires profound experience and wisdom.

Dual role

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The ancient office was always a strange combination of Institutional director and spiritual father. ”

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The description of the role of the Pope as a "spiritual ministry" will strike some as rather too ethereal.

Others will ask why the Church should have any role in political questions at all. Surely it should keep out of politics.

Most will probably just be puzzled by the way in which this spiritual and physical role can be combined in one leader.

The Pope's role is to lead a complex international institution; he requires similar skills to leaders of other large-scale organisations; to call this a spiritual vocation is disingenuous or even, perhaps, an exercise in propaganda.

But we would argue that this is to fundamentally misunderstand the role of the Pope.

The ancient office has always been a strange combination of 'institutional director' and 'spiritual father'.

For Catholic Christians, the Church is not a multinational bureaucratic mechanism for the salvation of souls. It is a unified body whose many and various members receive and use God's gifts to build communities based on love - after the example of Jesus Christ.

The Pope aids this work by providing the structure under which a given community might actually function - how Roman Catholics should live to receive and embody these gifts.

In this ancient vision, the Pope's work - just like that of clergy or bishops - is essentially political. It is focused upon fostering the life of love within the given community as much as possible.

To speak the language of love might appear sentimental in a world of corporate capitalism, but in a more ancient theological perspective, love is the least sentimental and most solid of all realities; it is the divine spark within every individual and the foundation of true political community.

Because for Christians love is the ground for every aspect of true human life, the Pope must be at once a spiritual and political minister.

The Pope swings the censer during mass The Pope's role is both spiritual and political

It is for this reason that the Church generally, and the papal office specifically, must be responsive to the shifting political and cultural landscapes of the modern age. This does not just mean embracing new technological innovations, but also understanding and working within the deeper issues regarding the nature of cultural and communal identity.

In contrast to many other institutions, the main goal of the papacy is not to solidify further its own power, but to respond to tensions and sorrows within local communities- both Catholic and non-Catholic-enabling them to move into a more complete way of living.

Modern demands

It is here that the demands of global media and social networking have their effect.

Traditionally, and contrary to popular belief, the papacy has worked to devolve power to the most local level possible.

But in an age of ever expanding global communication, all Catholics know the Pope's face whilst few know that of their own bishop. New technologies of this kind, along with a trend towards centralisation of power that has occurred over recent centuries in the Church, have come together to put unprecedented pressure upon the Vatican and the papal office.

Pope Benedict's resignation reflects this.

He has made a sober judgement about the demands of continuing in his old age to "steer the ship of Saint Peter".

Part of the issue here is that, having witnessed the protracted illness of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, he knows from personal experience what it might be like to bear the weight of the modern institution of the Church well into old age.

The truly relevant question, however, is not so much whether a Pope with diminished mental and physical vigour is up to the demands of directing the Church in its ever more centralised form, but whether any Pope is up to such a task.

Indeed, it is for this reason that the greatest challenge for Pope Benedict's successor, inasmuch as he seeks to stay true to his office, will be to try to find a way to recover a mode of papal authority that embraces the local and eschews centralisation.

This will be a delicate balance in the era of what the Vatican calls Pagina publica breviloquentis, known to the non Latin-speaking world as Twitter.

Dr Simon Oliver is Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Dr Samuel Kimbriel is University Teaching Associate in Philosophical Theology, University of Nottingham.

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