Twitter, Pink Smoke, and an Unexpected Resignation

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation yesterday. This event affects non-Catholics as much as it affects Catholics worldwide, perhaps especially globally connected young people. The Catholic Church makes up nearly 16 percent of the world’s population, standing directly between the Muslim population (23 percent) and the Protestant population (12 percent).In a world where the millennial generation is more likely to discern their faith practices carefully and choose more pluralistic views, this event and the follow up event of calling a new pope matter. Young people today seek after trustworthy transparency and the Church struggles to find its place in this emerging worldview.

Worth noting, Pope Benedict’s resignation marks the first time a pope has resigned in over 500 years! The last pope to do so was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. He was trying to end a schism within the Church. Here is a little papal history crash course: There were three popes at the time vying for power. Gregory was in Rome, Benedict XIII was in Avignon and Alexander V was in Pisa. After heated arguments, a lot of ego and a bunch of cardinals calling each pope heretical, the Council of Constance deposed Alexander V (who left peacefully), Gregory XII resigned from Rome and the Council deposed Benedict XIII. Benedict refused to give up his title but most people decided to ignore him. Benedict continued to have a faithful, yet small group of supporters. A brand new pope was elected, Pope Martin V, in Rome and most people were happy. That is, until the Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century.

Citing health concerns, the Pope is stepping down because he feels he is too old to continue to do his job well. Many will also look to the sexual scandals within the Catholic Church as Pope Benedict’s reason to step down. They would not be wrong. Pope Benedict acknowledges his inability to keep up with the demand for transparency in the world. His resignation also suggests the Vatican’s mishandling of many discords within the Catholic Church. Read what he stated from the Vatican yesterday:

“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary — strengths which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

This is a rare moment. Take notice. A very powerful man peacefully gave away his seat of power. It appears that he did it after prayer, reflection and taking inventory of his own body. Even so, his resignation is not surprising for those who watch closely the decisions of the Vatican. Benedict was planning to retire before the call to be Pope even came, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Why is this event, and what happens next, important for young people today? Many concerns circulate within the Catholic Church right now; some of the most popular concerns of the day include sexual scandal and molestation, celibacy of priests, female ordination and contraception. In response to many of these issues, Millennials are seeking after transparency that produces positive and healthful results. So when the announcement of resignation happened yesterday, it was not surprising that Twitter accounts came alive. A noteworthy example comes from the Women’s Ordination Conference, who advocate for women within the Catholic Church: “we’re getting the pink smoke ready!”

This tweet brings up more important points. Young people today are propelling an emerging world of transparency – common, globally-connected practices that no longer allow the Catholic Church to hide within the walls of the Vatican while still significantly impacting next generations. Rather than being a strong, trustworthy voice of accountability in relationship with the transparency generation, though, the Church appears to be floundering. Of course, it will all depend on who is called to be Pope next. Enter the Women’s Ordination Conference. This is a Catholic women’s group promoting the concept of female ordination. Pope Benedict XVI was a staunch opponent to female leadership in the Church. That a Catholic women’s group would promote their ideas on Twitter so freely is a big deal for the Catholic Church. Women’s groups, sexual scandal and the like are bringing the Church’s issues out into the open and pulling the curtain back. Some might even say that there has not been a call to transparency such as this since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door. Only, today, rather than one man’s document, millions are tweeting and blogging. The entire world has an opportunity to respond for the first time in the history of the Church. Pope Benedict has recognized that he does not have the abilities or stamina to respond to this profound call for transparency coming from all directions.

So, what’s the pink smoke all about? When the conclave of cardinals get together in the Sistine Chapel to vote for the new pope, all the votes are burned after tallying. The process of voting for the new pope is a very secretive affair. The cardinals and anyone else admitted to the conclave must take an oath to maintain secrecy. Voting, praying, sermons and more oaths fill up the days until a new pope is elected. When the votes are burned and dark smoke appears out of the chimney, no decision has been reached. If white smoke appears out of the chimney, a new pope has been elected. The Vatican uses chemicals to turn the smoke either color. If pink smoke appeared out of the chimney, well, that would be a new day for the Church. And that is a big understatement.

Female ordination most likely is far down on the agenda for the Catholic Church, while celibacy most likely is not. It is possible that within my lifetime, priests will be allowed to marry and have families. Many believe that allowing priests to marry will help the issues of sexual scandal that have plagued the Church. The Catholic Church already allows Anglican converts and orthodox converts with families to take up the Priesthood. At the same time, relenting on matters of celibacy also may force the Church’s hand to more openly address gay priests serving in the world.

In full disclosure, I am not Catholic but study Catholic faith and practice as a Protestant. I value the structure of the Catholic Church, the solemnity and order of the liturgical calendar. The hierarchy of the Catholic way assumes respect of the Trinity and the power of God. Pope Benedict’s resignation echoes this respect. As he steps down and allows a younger member of the Church to take leadership, the Vatican stands at a crossroads for reaching upcoming generations. As a body entrenched in centuries of secrecy and happenings that often occur behind closed doors, the Church’s ability to practice and model faithfulness in ways that garner trust will produce significant effects. In the past 70 years since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has already recognized the importance of relevance and reform. This current resignation makes a statement, a stronger declaration in recognizing the fast changes taking place in the world today – changes that seek after the kind of truth that sets people free.

-Carrie Kohler recently finished her Masters of Philosophy degree at Trinity College Dublin and is now the lead consultant for CFK Consulting, a nationwide organization located in D.C.