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At 55, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle is too young (and too junior a cardinal) to be chosen as the next leader of the world’s Catholics.

But with the continuing hold, although considerably weakened, of the Roman Catholic Church on its Filipino flock, you can understand why there are Pinoys who are seriously hoping that the conclave of cardinals will consider Tagle as replacement for Joseph Ratzinger, dubbed “Papa Ratzi” before he took the name Benedict XVI, when the pope steps down on Feb. 28.

The Philippines, after all, has lived up to its role as the Asian bastion of the Roman Catholic faith. Ours is the only country without divorce; even Romans can get divorced. In the Philippines’ case, of course, the real situation was well put by a renowned philanderer: “Ang asawa, hindi hinihiwalayan; ang asawa, dinadagdagan (You don’t separate from your wife; you add more wives)!”

Ours is also a predominantly Catholic nation that has ignored the sex scandals involving priests in several countries, with bishops and Benedict himself accused of covering up pedophilia and other sexual abuses that victimized mostly children. Critics who are bidding this pope good riddance have those sexual abuses and cover-up by the Vatican in mind. Rome should ask Filipino bishops what they have done right in handling that controversy.

In several countries, gay communities – another sector the pope has alienated – are cheering his resignation. Despite the scandals involving priests sexually molesting boys, the Church has taken a hardline stance against homosexuality. Much of the doctrine behind this hardline position since the time of Pope John Paul II has been attributed to the German cardinal who would become Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict, who gave a salute to modernity by opening a Twitter account, also gave his blessings to the use of condoms, although only to save lives by preventing the spread of AIDS/HIV when engaging the services of sex workers. There’s disagreement on whether the pope was referring specifically to male sex workers or to all prostitutes in general.

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I thought the papal green light for condom use for sex that’s not for procreation was radical, but others considered the endorsement half-hearted. Perhaps the endorsement held more significance in our country because of the passionate debate over women’s right to reproductive health.

The world’s reaction to the exit of John Paul II from the papacy was markedly different from the impending one of Benedict. I don’t remember anyone bidding Pope John Paul II good riddance. But then this is one of the perils of stepping down instead of dying in office, as most Catholics expect a pope to do. In death, all the virtues of the deceased tend to be highlighted, while the lapses and human frailties are buried. 

Apart from this, however, even Catholics are wondering if a pope can give up a position that is supposed to have been bestowed by God, working through the conclave of cardinals.

The pope is seen to have a contract with God, which cannot be broken even when the body ails and wants to give up the responsibility. This bolsters the doctrine of papal infallibility, which in turn requires unquestioning obedience of Church teachings by the Catholic faithful.

The pope’s resignation is creating confusion. Since this is supposed to be a job for life, will there actually be two popes once Benedict’s successor is chosen?

Pope Benedict is being criticized for treating his position like any job that can be taken on by lesser mortals. But in this predominantly Catholic country, the resignation is welcomed by those who hope it will serve as an inspiration to those who think they must cling to public office as long as the last maggot has not yet signed on, as we like to say – isang bulate na lang ang hindi pumipirma.

The pope, however, is not supposed to be like you and me. By divine guidance, the pope is chosen by the College of Cardinals for life, and unlike ordinary royalty, he cannot abdicate. He is God’s representative on Earth, the Rock of the Catholic Church.

Critics of the resignation point out that the pope is supposed to be a cut above humanity. Even if, at 85, his health is failing, he has to stick it out in his mission. That’s what it is – a mission, not just any secular job. 

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Some prefer to see the resignation as a modern interpretation of the papacy. Pope Benedict, according to speculative reports, thought another person would be able to better handle the many controversies that have beset the Vatican.

This pope presided over a tumultuous period in modern Church history, when princes of the faith were found guilty in the secular world of sexual molestation and child rape. Several dioceses went bankrupt due to settlement payments, but the Vatican was seen to be slow and reluctant in imposing its own sanctions on erring shepherds of the flock.

Adding to the pope’s woes was his own butler, who last year released stories of alleged corruption in the Vatican in what has been dubbed in mass media as Vatileaks.

Benedict is not setting a precedent, but the last pope to give up the divinely ordained job, Gregory XII, did so way back in 1415.

For Catholics in 2013, this is largely uncharted territory. The resignation has made the pope only too human, and humans can be wrong, humans can make mistakes. Not quite the impression that the Church would want to project in an age of moral ambiguity.


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