Well, this is big news:
Pope Benedict XVI told shocked cardinals on Monday that he would step down from the pontificate at the end of this month, citing his age and infirmity to explain the decision to become the first man to relinquish the role voluntarily since 1294.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” the 85-year old said in a message to cardinals.
He added that in the modern world “both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me”.
The Vatican said that the papacy would remain vacant between February 28 and whenever the College of Cardinals elected his successor. The conclave for the election will not begin until the pope’s abdication at 8pm in Rome (7pm GMT) on February 28.
Antonio Socci, a conservative columnist who wrote last year about the possibility of the pope’s resignation, said it would be “like playing tombola” – an Italian form of bingo – to predict the next pope. The main decision facing the 120 cardinal electors at the conclave next month would be whether to opt for “continuity or change”, he told the Financial Times.
If you're interested in gaming out who will be the next Pope, click over to Paul Musgrave's excellent summary of the literature over at Duck of Minerva.
I'm more interested in a simpler question -- why do we care? As Stathys Kalyvas tweeted this am:
Lots of attention lavished on a man who didn't command any divisions— Stathis Kalyvas (@SKalyvas) February 11, 2013
Riffing on Stalin's oft-quoted line, what is it about the Catholic Pope that means attention must be paid? What is the source of the Pope's power?
Well, one obvious reason is that Catholicism still commands a fair number of adherents. According to the CIA World Factbook, close to 17% of the world's population is Catholic. It's the largest denomination in Christendom. Only Muslims have more adherents, but that's deceptive since the CIA combines Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. From an international relations perspective, if power equals numbers, there appears to be a tripolar distribution of religious adherents between Catholics, Hindus, and Sunni Muslims.
Another source of influence is the Catholic Church's long tradition and legacy. If the Church is merely one of many now, back in its prime it was Europe's religious and secular superpower, which leads to all kinds of legacy effects. Britain and France are still on the U.N. Security Council because they were great powers back in the day, for example. The same applies to the Catholic Church. Benedict XVI's resignation was noteworthy in that only four other popes have resigned in the past millennium -- and each of those cases comes with quite a story. So tradition can create lasting legacies of power as well.
Still, I'd argue that the biggest reason the Pope matters from a power perspective is that, simply put, the Catholic Church is the most centralized religious organization in human history. -- hell, save the Communist Party, it might be the most centralized organization period. With such a structure, it matters cruicially who heads it. In contrast, the other major religions do not have anything close to the church bureaucracy or organizational resoirces.
This is a banal point, but it's worth remembering in a century where the emphasis is on "networked" structures and the flattening of hierarchies and what-not. There are very good reasons for these kinds of organizational changes. If one cares about power, however, then centralization is still a crucial quality. Which is why non-Catholics are still interested in who the next Pope will be.
[Burned a lot of white smoke to write this post, didn't you?--ed. I see what you're doing here...]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.