Point Person: Our Q&A with Matthew Wilson on the pope’s resignation

Matthew Wilson, political scientist at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, talks about the Pope's retirement and what's next for the Catholic church.

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement is arguably the biggest news — and most surprising — of the new year. Points asked SMU associate political science professor Matthew Wilson, a practicing Catholic who studies the intersection of religion and culture, to talk about the significance of the departure and the road ahead for the Catholic Church. Wilson is also a regular panelist on the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog, at dallasnews.com/texasfaith.

There has been a lot of talk this week about the uniqueness of a papal resignation. Is it possible we may see more in the future? The office requires heavy travel demands and keeping up with a fast pace. A pope may decide, “I’m 80, it’s time to go.”

Absolutely. If you look at the incredible toll the papacy took on John Paul II, he truly was a suffering servant during his last years. He struggled with Parkinson’s disease and trying to be a pope in the modern world while coping with that degenerative disease. That must have been on Pope Benedict’s mind as he entered the second part of his 80s and considered the demands of the modern office.

It’s one thing to be a pope in the 1850s. It’s another to be one in the 21st century, given all the demands from the media and the expectations of travel around the world. It’s comparable to what a world leader faces. That’s pretty grueling when you are in your 80s.

And there are no term limits.


Did Benedict’s championing of traditionalism come at the expense of doing something about the ongoing sex abuse scandals?

That was one of his most difficult challenges. The challenge isn’t so much what to do to prevent those things going forward. The church has done quite a lot to try to prevent scandals like that from happening in the future.

The much more difficult choices are what to do about those things that happened in the past. How do you deal with them? He can do nothing to undo those tragic acts. It was definitely something he struggled with. And some victims groups thought he should have been more forthcoming and more apologetic, although he unequivocally spoke of those incidents as being a disgrace, a humiliation, a stain on the church.

It was difficult to balance an appropriate degree of contrition and respect for the victims with the legitimate desire to protect the church’s autonomy and legal position in jurisdictions around the world.

As you know, Christianity is booming in Africa and Latin America. What should the next pope do to reflect that phenomenon and give voice to global Christianity shifting south?...