Pope Benedict XVI managed to catch many of us off-guard with his early retirement option. Not within living memory, or even very dusty, antiquated memory has a pope resigned. Such is the draw of power. Of course the founder and putative CEO of the organization stepped down at 33, or so the story goes, but after that the urge to stay on only grew. The papacy, some traditions claim, is as old as Christianity. Others suggest that the stresses and strains that eventually led to the primacy of Rome in the western church were much more intricate than that. Modern research has also indicated that one-size-fits-all Christianity really didn’t even exist from the beginning. Different groups claimed to be Christian but were labeled heretical by other groups. The Roman Catholic Church is still the single largest Christian denomination in the world, however, and that translates to quite a lot of weight.
According to the book of Acts, the first Christians were a communal lot, holding everything in common. Although we can’t call them communists, in a sense they were. It didn’t take long for that structure to break down, however. Before long it was obvious that leaders would emerge in the movement. At first they wouldn’t have been priests, but eventually that age-old designation came to describe what the clergy did. Worship became ceremony, and ritual requires expert leadership. Various religions have tried to break down the hierarchical structure of having one person over the others, but in this masculine world of CEOs and prestige, well, there’s only so much you can share.
What’s really striking is that no pope in 600 years has stepped down. There could’ve been many occasions. Presiding over about a sixth of the world’s population must be a heady experience, especially for a religious person. Already the speculation is thick on who the next pontiff might be. The fact that the faithful are already chomping at the bit shows something of the nature of the creature (one can’t very well say “beast” in such a context). The papacy has become a symbol in its own right, and even megachurches can’t hope to top their numbers. The Pentecostals, however, are racing to catch up. The two types of Christianity are about as far apart as possible while remaining under the same Lord. I suspect by the time the next pope vacates the office the religious landscape will be very different. Perhaps Benedict XVI is wise to call the game on his own terms.