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Watch: Pope Benedict’s surprise exit enhances legacy

Pope Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation will raise his stature among Catholics, even among those who sharply disagree with his policies, according to Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy Professor of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

“There is respect around the world for Pope Benedict as his decision reflects deep humility,” said Morrill, who is also a Jesuit priest. “What is striking is that he does not identify in his person the papacy, and for many Catholics as well as others, that is Catholicism. That is a huge gift he has given the church as it moves along through the 21st century with people living much longer than previous generations.”

Morrill views Benedict’s papacy as one that was both troubled and effective to a certain extent. The Vanderbilt professor said that for a number of reasons, including the Catholic sex abuse scandals and cover-ups, Benedict did not make significant progress toward his goal of “re-activating Catholicism” within an increasing secular Europe.

On the other hand, Morrill believes Benedict’s influence will continue for many years through those that he appointed as bishops and cardinals. “Benedict appointed 29 cardinals during the past year, putting into place men who will build on the conservative agenda of Benedict and John Paul II, with its emphasis on orthodox teachings and obedience.”

Morrill noted that a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll showed that the third largest group in the United States consists of ex-Catholics who have not affiliated with any other religious group. “We would certainly expect that the voting cardinals would think about the importance of reversing this alarming trend of declining membership in Europe, North Atlantic, the United States, Latin America and elsewhere as they consider who will succeed Benedict.”

Morrill also pointed out that even if the church is going through some turbulence with its membership, it remains a large social force in the United States. “We see that in terms of American politics, not only electoral politics, but also the politics of running the government, with such hot-button issues as abortion and coverage of contraceptive services. We don’t usually see the pope weigh in directly on these issues. Rather it’s the men that the pope appoints to these positions in the United States that the Vatican and the papacy can rely upon to be in sync with these doctrinal and moral agendas,” he said.