For the first time since 1415, the pope – the head of the universal Catholic Church – has stepped down.
Speaking to a group of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning, the 85-year-old Benedict said he would step down effective Feb. 28 because his "strengths due to an advanced age are no longer suited" to his heading the Church.
Fr. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, said it's not likely a new pope will change much in terms of the Church's stances on or responses to hot-button issues like contraception, poverty or immigration. For one thing, all of those who are eligible to select the next pope – men known as cardinals – were appointed by Benedict or his predecessor, Pope John Paul II – both of whom were very much on the same page, doctrine-wise.
On top of that, Rausch says popes don't typically enact immediate, sweeping change, especially in the local or political arenas.
"Popes teach in a very general way for the universal Church, and don't generally enter into local political issues," he said, adding "that's really the role of local bishops."
Of course, the pope isn't just a figurehead – he's the one who appoints the bishops, so he certainly has a major influence on the message of the hierarchical church beyond his own pulpit. But it's a balance, said Rausch.
"[The pope] doesn't want to interfere in [the bishops'] realm of authority," he said.
With its high teen birth rate, low median income and large immigrant population, the issues of contraception, poverty and immigration are all profoundly intertwined into life in South Los Angeles. Rausch summarized the Catholic Church's stances on all three:
Contraception: Rausch noted that Benedict "didn't really have anything to say about the current debate between the American bishops and the Obama Administration on the [Affordable Care Act] mandate" that employers cover the cost of contraception. While acknowledging that the majority of Catholics admit to using contraception, he cited the late John Paul II in summarizing the Church's views on contraception:
His basic argument is that the act of sexual intercourse is the complete openness of two people to each other, including their bodies, and to inhibit that openness through contraceptives is to make one's total offering of oneself to the other less than it should be or ought to be.
Rausch added that he doesn't "foresee any change" to that stance "in the near future."
Poverty: The Catholic social tradition of uplifting the poor goes "all the way back to Pope Leo XIII," said Rausch. That pope is known for authoring Rerum Novarum, a hugely influential encyclical which addressed the condition of the working class. "A concern for the poor and disadvantaged has always been central to Church doctrine," said Rausch:
The Church has taken a very strong stand on the right to a living wage, the right to organize, the right to protect the rights of laboring people – the Church supported labor unions very early on. That concern for the poor has broadened in the 20th century under the popes of the 20th century, to look at not only the problems of industrialization and so forth, but the problems of people in various countries that were socially oppressive.
Immigration: At least on one level, the Catholic stance on immigration is pretty simple, said Rausch:
It's certainly part of the official teaching of the Church that people have a right to immigrate seeking better lives for their families.
Rausch said popes have different ways of deciding what to emphasize their teaching tradition on.
"You could get a pope who says this issue has been decided, and is not going to talk about it very much," he said. Then again, another pope may decide to spend time further fleshing out a point of doctrine.
But in the end, Rausch echoed every scholar, reporter and member of the faithful in his assessment of the direction of the Catholic Church.
"It's really hard to say until we know who the new pope is," he said.