Pope Benedict XVI, who announced Monday that he is stepping down from the papacy, has led the Roman Catholic Church during a time of turmoil and change for American Catholics. Nearly one-third of Americans who were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholics. Overall, American Catholic churches lost 5 percent of their membership during the last decade, and the decline would have been much steeper if not for the offsetting impact of Catholic immigrants from Latin America.
It was never going to be easy for any pope to take over in the wake of the church's sex-abuse scandal. The subsequent crisis of trust in Catholic leaders and institutions drove many lay Catholics to abandon their church. But many of those who remained were not soothed by Benedict’s papacy. A rare scandal from within the Vatican last year captured headlines when the pope’s personal butler was arrested and convicted for leaking papal documents to a journalist. And Benedict’s decision to reestablish ties with a breakaway group of traditionalist Catholics—the Society of St. Pius X—whose leaders included a Holocaust denier was troubling to moderate Catholics, as was an investigation and reprimand of Women Religious in the U.S.
Benedict was warmly received during his 2010 visit to the U.S., in stark contrast to protests that greeted his travel elsewhere around the globe. (On one visit to Malta, papal critics painted Hitler mustaches and scrawled “pedophilia” on billboards announcing the pope’s appearance.) But Americans never embraced Benedict as they did John Paul II, whose approval rating here never fell below 60 percent and was over 90 percent around the time of his death in 2005. In contrast, by 2010, only 40 percent of Americans gave Benedict a positive rating (a drop of 20 percentage points in two years) and even Catholics were more skeptical of the pontiff. Between 2008 and 2010, Benedict’s approval rating among American Catholics fell from 80 percent to 60 percent.
It’s not surprising that more liberal American Catholics have kept their distance from Benedict, who was viewed on his election to the papacy as a doctrinaire conservative. But conservative Catholics have discovered, to their chagrin, that Benedict is not quite the ally they had hoped for when it comes to issues of economic justice. The pope made Catholic conservatives’ opposition to President Obama’s health care effort awkward, for instance, when he wrote in 2010 that universal health care was one of the “inalienable rights” of man. And conservative Catholics such as George Weigel bristled when the pope wrote about “an urgent need of a true world political authority” to address problems of economic inequality both within and between countries.
The relationship between conservatives and liberals in the American community is as tense today as it has been at any point since Vatican II. As the church loses members and trust in Catholic institutions plummets, leaders fight about whether to focus the church’s public resources on the abortion issue or on an array of broader concerns—from immigration reform to budget cuts. All the while, large elephants loom in the background, as subjects such as the celibate priesthood and ordination of women go unaddressed. With his appointment of ever more conservative bishops and cardinals, Benedict has helped tilt the U.S. bishops conference rightward just as the lay Catholics in America are expressing more liberal views on gay marriage and economic issues.
Ultimately, as Michael Sean Winters wrote Monday in the National Catholic Reporter, Pope Benedict’s decision to resign may be the most modernizing step he has taken to shape the future of the Catholic Church. The move allows a much-needed debate about the direction the church needs while facing the challenges of modernity to take place now instead of idling while leaders wait for Benedict’s death. New leadership at the Vatican may not stop the exodus of American Catholics from the church of their birth. But it may be the best chance church leaders have to reenergize those Catholics who still fill the pews.