THE BLOG
02/15/2013 12:09 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI's Most Powerful Gift to the Church

The end of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI is a dramatic one. It leaves the Catholic world at a kind of ecclesiastical hiatus between two worlds. The church that brought us to Vatican II, however hard Benedict XVI tried to restore it, is more distant than ever. It is at a crossover point between a church that still looks like the past but which is now forever marked by the issues of the age which Benedict XVI confronted but could not resolve.

The Church whose identity has been forever Western and European is less Western every day and barely European thanks to its declining numbers everywhere. A whole new kind of religious pluralism is everywhere now. Religious sensibilities are no longer regional, which means that a new sense of conscious formation must be seen as distinct from either local culture or politics and cannot be privileged by either.

Issues of collegiality are simmering everywhere, the voice of the laity is clear, the integrity of the church itself is suspect. Its total disregard for the contribution of women to it, either as an institution or as a spiritual system, has rent the cloth right down the middle. It is a man's church -- organizationally, theologically and spiritually. But at the same time, secular society rather than the church has taken the lead in promoting the equality and role of women and a lay church which recognizes the spiritual role of women is growing up outside of it.

The attitude of the church toward gays has done as much to distance their families from the church as it has the LGBT community itself. Most obvious of all, the wound to the church as a result of the lingering effects of the sex abuse scandal is deep and costly, in more ways than one.

These are not business-as-usual organizational questions in a changing world. These are issues that touch the very core of what it means to be human, to be holy, to be Christian, to be church. They are not going to go to disappear when this pontificate disappears. They have not been addressed by this pontificate in any way that gives hope for their resolution. But they have been exposed.

The fact that Benedict XVI has very humbly admitted the immensity of the present moment for the Church and decided to step out of it in favor of someone whose energies are fresher and, hopefully, more in touch with the pastoral problems of this transition from one era to another is, perhaps, the most powerful gift of this papacy. Old laws will not save us from this time. Cosmetic changes in the church will not renew it.

As Pope Benedict clearly knows, this will take new energy, deep insight and the willingness to rethink the face of the faith from the bottom up in a world now doing experiments on Mars, grappling with a theology of evolutionary spirituality, coming face to face with all the religions of the world in every city on the planet -- and the implications of that for politics and society, as well as religion -- and breaking down barriers between "Jew and Greek, slave and free, man and woman" everywhere. It will be a contest now between attitudes and new vision. This pope is making way for that new vision. At this time in history, when the world is changing by the day, it is hard to imagine a greater contribution to the church.