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Changes in modern world alter papal influence

Religious scholars discuss the relevancy of the papacy in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign.
BY RACHEL ZOLL Published: February 16, 2013

The pope is by far the world's most visible religious figure.

His office can be a bully pulpit on everything from salvation to the economy. In his overseas travels, he's greeted with the kind of pomp and reverence accorded world leaders.

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to step down, questions are being raised about just how influential his successor can be. He will be taking command of a church that has been weakened in recent decades — by rising secularism in the West, fallout from clergy sex abuse, competition from Pentecostal groups in the developing world and crises within the Vatican itself.

“Many Catholics, particularly in the Western world, take the pope's counsel seriously, but they don't consider it binding,” said Mathew Schmalz, a professor who specializes in global Catholicism at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

The pontiff leads about 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, comprising about one-half of the globe's Christian population, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

While he is bound in many ways by precedent and history, the pope alone can set the direction and tone for the church.

Yet, as a growing number of Europeans and Americans from different faiths leave organized religion, many Christians have welcomed the pope's prominence as a much-needed voice for traditional belief.

Monday, when the pope announced his decision to resign, the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the flagship seminary for the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted: “Remember that millions of people around the world gain their idea of what Christianity is from the papacy.”

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