It was less than a month before news of the Pope’s resignation that I penned an article about what it meant to be a young gay Catholic in the 21st century. Now, it’s interesting to see similar religious issues brought to the fore of public discussion in the wake of recent news. As we know, Pope Benedict XVI is one of only a handful of popes to resign and the first to so do for over 600 years. Lofty rhetoric aside, this is an historic abdication, which will play out quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
When the Pope takes off to his glorified retirement home at the end of February, he won’t leave behind too much of a papal legacy. He will largely be remembered for his covering up of the church sex abuse and his conservative views on contraception, abortion and homosexuality – that is, if history remembers him at all. The abuse scandal was a whole lot greater than him, and as for the conservative views, well, they’re nothing new. The Pope stood for stagnant and painful continuity, so it’s not surprising that many people are now hopeful for the ‘Obama moment’ – the coming of a new leader who will change the face of the church and bring new hope to an old role. Unfortunately, we’ve become too swept up in a political world where TV debates and smiles win votes, and ‘out with the old’ also means ‘in with the new’. I hate to break it to you, but the election of the new pope will most likely be a standard changing of the guard.
In early March there will commence a conclave – a private meeting between over 200 top cardinals, enclosed in isolation until they select the next leader. Although the only rule is that the Pope be a Catholic-baptised male (yes, I’m available), it’s usually one of the Cardinals in the room who is selected. Once they have decided on their man, they let us know by sending white smoke out of their chimney. And who can we expect to emerge triumphant onto the balcony?
Unlike last time, when right-hand man Ratzinger was the obvious favourite, there isn’t really a leading contender this time, but two things are being discussed. One is that the very fact of Benedict’s continued existence will influence the Cardinals’ choice, assuring that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree; the other is that a non-European pope will be selected for the first time in modern history. Will this mean he’ll be different? The simple answer is, probably not.
It’s easy to hope Western civilization’s rapid gains in gay equality will be reflected by every incoming global leader, but the Catholic Church is not about to start entering popularity contests. It doesn’t need to. The gay cause may be one which reaches political fruition this century, but for every rainbow-flag-waving, well educated European mocking Vatican doctrine, many more people in the developing world are still dependent on the church for day-to-day survival, basic knowledge and invaluable faith. I know what that feels like, for not so long ago Ireland was one such country, but just as it has lost the faith of a few million on the Emerald Isle, the Church has made huge gains in Africa, Asia and South America, which all boast growing Catholic populations. It’s hoped the new Pope will represent this.
Will this mean a black Pope? Quite possibly – but again, this is not a sign of the moving times. A black man in the Vatican is not quite as progressive as a black man in the White House. In many areas where we thought Benedict was archaic, an African Pope would likely be even more conservative. This is Catholicism’s Africa, where the Church denies condoms to a continent devastated by AIDS and where homosexuality is still largely punishable by death. As names and photos of African cardinals began to swirl around after Pope Benedict’s announcement, I remembered a myth I’d heard as a child in Ireland that a black Pope’s election would preface the end of the world. Unsure of whether this was based on anything concrete, or if it was just a bit of casual racism that circulated among country folk, I did my research. Certainly there are people who link a black Pope with apocalyptic consequences, but nothing is founded in any substantial source. What I did stumble across was something much more interesting: The Prophecy of the Popes.
This is a text which was written by Saint Malachy, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, in the 1100s, which was the result of a vision he experienced on a trip to Rome. He foresaw the future of the papacy, and using short descriptive phrases, predicted the identities of all the popes who would lead the church. For example, John Paul II is depicted as ‘of the eclipse of the sun’ – and he was indeed born during a solar eclipse. Benedict is marked as ‘the glory of the olive’ – the olive being the symbol of the Benedictine order. The document is in some doubt. The church obviously dismisses it and the fact that it wasn’t unearthed until the 1500s (plenty of time to fill in all the contemporary history if it’s a fake), means many people are wary of its authenticity. But theologians haven’t ruled it out completely. It counts up to 112 Popes, of which we can calculate Benedict to be 111. As for 112, (brace yourselves), the prophecy tells us:
‘In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End.’
The city of seven hills is Rome. Again, I have to point out that some scholars question if there was a gap in the text between pope 111, and the final ‘Peter the Roman’, due to some awkward grammar but for anyone interested in a juicy prediction, they don’t come much better than this. No pope has ever taken the regnal name Peter, since the very first – Peter of the 12 apostles – friend of Jesus, and founder of the church. They withhold his name out of respect. Surely they wouldn’t break that tradition now, especially since the prophecy names him? Probably not. But if his birth name is Peter, that’s a different story. So try Peter Turkson on for size, the black Ghanaian Cardinal who is currently standing with odds of 4/1 to take the papacy next month. Could he be the Peter in question? Is he the black Pope of urban myth? Is he the next Pope, and the last Pope?
For centuries, theologians have imaged the Prophecy of the Popes speaks of the end of the world. I wonder if it does not speak of the destruction of the earth but of the church itself. Consider the ‘persecution’ – is this a precursor to reversed intolerance of religion, fuelled by science, liberalism and desire for an almost post-colonial revenge? The destruction of Rome need not mean the city, but the Vatican as a place and an institution. The line about judgement is one we are used to hearing. The OED defines ‘apocalypse’ as ‘an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale’. When translated directly from Greek, it means a disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. In other words, a revelation. Is it possible that the sustained and stubborn conservatism of a new Pope could bring about a separation of church and people, evoking a devastation of faith? If the scriptures were speaking metaphorically or theologically, then surely there could be no greater apocalypse for the church than this.
I have speculated on possibilities here and no one can say for sure whether any of it will become relevant in the near future. Remember that the decline of the church could do a whole lot more damage to civilisation than advocates of gay equality might imagine. Personally, I hold out hope for a reinvention of the church. It’s not too late to salvage its reputation, but time is running out and the next Pope might just be the tipping point. This is certainly plenty to chew on and to bear in mind as we wait for that white smoke to emerge from the Vatican some time in March.
This article appeared originally on SoSoGay online.