- Catholic Church continued march backwards under Benedict, writes Paul Donovan
- Donovan: Church must reform in order to stay relevant in 21st century
- Church must be more democratic, more transparent, consider role of women
The announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI came as a bolt from the blue to the world but not a moment too soon for many Catholics.
The Catholic Church has continued to march backwards under Pope Benedict, seeming at times to be in a state of perpetual denial, whether the issue be that of child abuse, birth control, homosexuality or the role of women.
At the heart of the church there lies a deep chauvinism that seems to have infected the whole edifice.
Women may feel discriminated against in many institutions but few have made it so blatantly clear that the woman's place remains at the kitchen sink as the Catholic Church.
The refusal to enter into a constructive dialogue about the possibility of having female clergy underlines just how male dominated the institution remains.
Rubbing salt in the wounds in Britain has been the creation by Pope Benedict of the Ordinariate. This body facilitates the progress of those Anglicans who predominantly want to leave the Church of England because of the ordination of women into the Catholic Church.
This has seen a succession of married priests coming over, so providing a ready supply of candidates to fill the growing number of vacancies, due to lack of celibate males, in the Catholic Church.
No one at the Vatican seems overly concerned about the contradiction that sees married Anglicans being allowed to join the Catholic Church and minister to the faithful, whilst a man ordained as priest in the Catholic faith who wants to get married has to leave in order to do so.
It is this sort of heaping of contradiction on contradiction that has brought the church to its present position of crisis with people walking away in their droves.
But perhaps the biggest crisis for the Church remains child abuse. It has shaken the whole edifice under the present pontiff's tenure, and no doubt taken its toll on him personally.
Fulsome apologies have been made and actions taken to remedy abuse across the world. However, as cases like that of Cardinal Sean Brady in Ireland prove, many of those now in the positions of authority in the church are the very same who stood by, or worse still, colluded in the cover-up of abuse.
There is no doubt still more to come. The church needs to face up to its responsibilities and show a greater concern for the victims than for protection of the institution at all costs.
The laity feel largely ignored on these matters. They were not consulted over whether they wanted the Ordinariate nor over the recently imposed translation of the mass. A great number of the laity also feel hugely let down by the role of priests in abuse.
Catholics worldwide must hope that the spirit moves the Cardinals when they gather in March to elect a new pope. Many will pray that the new pope is more in the mould of Pope John XXIII, who ushered in the Second Vatican Council that sat for much of the 1960s.
This was a time of hope. Pope John called for the church to open its windows and engage with the world. Vatican II brought forward radical thought on issues from poverty and war to workplace justice and the family. The laity were given a say. Nothing less is required this time around.
Vatican III would have to look at things like the dignity of the human person, empowerment of the laity, the role of women and the sex abuse scandal.
In the case of abuse, change would mean examining those structures of the church that made these things likely in the first place.
Central to this effort must be the role of the priest. The role must change to become that of one among equals. Priests, whether they be men or women, must become more accountable and not act in the authoritarian manner that many who hold the office do today.
It would also be good to have a church that offers some ethical and moral leadership to the wider world. Views on things like climate change, war and peace, the present capitalist economic model and poverty would all be welcome contributions to the public discourse, rather than lectures on gay marriage.
If a new pope can kick start a Vatican III-style process that genuinely seeks to move the church forward beyond its most recent crisis, then there is hope for the future.
The new pope may well come from Africa or Asia, given that it is in these areas where the church continues to grow. A southern perspective will no doubt help in bringing forth a more prophetic leadership in the church at this time.
What is for sure is that more of the same will not do. A new pope who continues the backward approach of recent pontiffs will simply be one who continues to manage the decline of an institution that remains out of date for many in the 21st century.