How the Catholic Church Can Stay Relevant

Vatican correspondent John Thavis talks about Pope Benedict's resignation and the future of the Church.

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With Pope Benedict's resignation, the state of both the papacy and the Catholic Church is uncertain. John Thavis, who reported on the Vatican for 30 years for the Catholic News Service, offers a look inside the Holy See in The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. Thavis recently spoke to U.S. News about the scandals, the turmoil caused by Pope Benedict's unexpected resignation, and what he thinks the Catholic Church should do to stay relevant in an age of growing secularism. Excerpts:

After 30 years covering the Vatican, why did you decide to write a book now?

I took a good look at what I had seen and witnessed, and I realized that some of the most interesting things never made it into news stories. I decided that I needed to write the back story of some of the events I'd seen over those 30 years because I think the back story is probably as interesting, or more interesting, than what reporters generally report from the Vatican.

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Some say that Pope Benedict is leaving behind a mess at the Vatican. Do you think they're right?

Well, I'm not sure it's fair to pin the mess on Pope Benedict, but I guess I agree with the idea that certainly things inside the Vatican's bureaucracy have kind of gone off the rails recently. It started a few years ago with everything from Vatileaks, the leaked documents, to the in-fighting between cardinals. Some of these were caused by Benedict himself, and he acknowledged some mistakes, but many of them were caused by his top officials in the Roman Curia.

After a number of scandals, what is the state of the Vatican now?

The Vatican bureaucracy is in disarray. I think they're going day-to-day right now trying to answer questions about how the papal resignation will work. As I mentioned, I think many of the cardinals probably feel that Pope Benedict was not served well by the bureaucratic apparatus at the Vatican, and I think there's going to be a greater willingness to look at change in the Roman Curia.

How can the Church move beyond the scandals?

I think the Church has to examine these in the open, and then I think it has to also deal with the question of accountability. I think what people are still looking for is a sense that bishops who covered up cases [of sexual abuse], or moved priests from one parish to another, are held accountable for what they did.

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Do you think that Benedict was both a good pope and a good administrator?

Well, I think Benedict will get high marks from Catholics because he was a very good teaching pope. I think the world will see Benedict as someone who really struggled to govern his church. And, the question now is: Do we want a CEO-type, a hard-nosed manager to come in? Or, do we want a holy man? I do think it's not absolutely necessary that the next pope be a hands-on manager, as long as he brings in the right people. And there's evidence that Pope Benedict did not do that.

What will be his legacy?

First of all, I think he'll be remembered as the pope who resigned. In one single act, he has really brought the papacy into the modern age, and he's done so in a surprising way. He has said to the Church and the world that the office of pope has to adapt to the needs of the modern world.

Do you think it's time to modernize the Vatican and the Catholic Church?

Yes, I do. I think modernizing in this sense means doing away with institutions and bureaucracies that have not done the Church any favors. For example, [the pope] could internationalize the Roman Curia. He could make it routine that you hold cabinet-style meetings in the Vatican. He could get rid of the Vatican bank.

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What challenges do you think the next pope will face?

I think the next pope will face tremendous challenges in evangelizing, and by that I mean the next pope is going to have to reach audiences that have either drifted away from the Church or have never really expressed any interest in religion. It's not an easy task because much of what the Church teaches, of course, goes against the cultural grain, but I think it can be done.