VATICAN CITY — Conspiracies abound surrounding the Pope’s abdication Feb. 28, but it is becoming clear that the very reasons the Holy Father gave in his Feb. 11 announcement are the best guide to understanding his motives.
Pope Benedict XVI is not suffering from any specific medical problem — neither Alzheimer’s nor Parkinson’s disease — and Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was categorical in his denials of such an illness when asked by the Register last week.
But what also can be verified by those who know the Holy Father best is that his physical condition has weakened considerably in recent months, to such an extent that he felt obliged to take action.
One source close to the Pope’s inner circle told the Register Feb. 16 that the Pope has lost 22 pounds over the past year and that those closest to him were starting to become concerned about his increasing frailty and exhaustion.
And in an article in this week’s edition of Focus, a German weekly magazine, papal biographer Peter Seewald wrote that he had never seen the Pope so “exhausted and depressed” as when they last met, 10 weeks ago.
Seewald, who has been working on a new book on Pope Benedict and had met the Holy Father several times in Rome over the past year, said the Pope’s “hearing had diminished,” and he “could no longer see in his left eye.”
He observed that the Holy Father had become so thin that his old clothes would no longer fit him. Last week, Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi also revealed that the Pope has had a pacemaker for a number of years.
“He has become so soft, more kindly and even more humble, but quite withdrawn,” Seewald wrote. “He didn’t look ill, but fatigue had taken hold of his body and soul and couldn’t be ignored.”
Strong Governance Required
Others close to the Holy Father say that the Pope, aware he was beginning to fail physically, did not want to match the powerful witness to suffering that Blessed Pope John Paul II had already given during his final years — and he refused to do so simply out of humility.
“Pope Benedict is not afraid of suffering, but he didn’t feel he was the one to compete with John Paul II; and, in that sense, it was a very noble and humble act,” said Paul Badde, Rome correspondent for Die Welt, who is close to the Pope’s inner circle. “He realized John Paul II was a hero of suffering, but he also saw what happened at close quarters during his final years and how he let governance go unchecked for quite some time.”
As Pope John Paul II suffered from Parkinson’s disease, much of the governing of the Church during those final years was carried out by his aides, and most notably by his personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. “Pope Benedict has entrusted the pontifical household to his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, and believes it would be unfair to pass the onus of governing the Church onto him, letting his secretary effectively be pope,” Badde continued. “That’s very rational of him and, I would say, shows a great humility.”
Seewald, to whom Pope Benedict revealed he would consider abdicating, as recounted in Seewald’s 2010 book Light of the World, wrote in his Focus article that it was clear the possibility of renouncing the papacy remained present in his mind from that time onward.
During one of their meetings at Castel Gandolfo last August, he asked the Holy Father what more could be expected from his pontificate.
“From me? Not much,” the Pope replied. “I am an old man, and the strength stops. I think what I have done is enough.” Asked if he would resign, the Pope answered, “That depends how much my physical strength will be necessary for me.”
That same month, Seewald recalled, Benedict wrote to one of his doctoral students saying that the coming Schulerkreis — his annual September meeting with his former students — would be his last.
And with his remaining strength, Seewald said, the Pope brought to a conclusion his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, with his book on the infancy narratives of Christ published in time for Christmas. Benedict said it would be his last book with “sadness in his eyes,” Seewald remembered.
But the German journalist and author stressed that recent events and crises did not play a direct role in his decision.
When Seewald asked him about the Vatileaks scandal, the Pope said that, although the betrayal of his valet was disappointing to him, the crisis surrounding the leaking of confidential papal documents did not alter his course.
“It wasn’t as though I fell into some kind of despair or world weariness,” Seewald said the Pope told him. “It was simply incomprehensible to me.” He added that he couldn’t “penetrate the psychology” behind it, nor what Paolo Gabriele expected to gain from leaking the documents. But he said he was keen that the “Vatican’s judicial independence would be preserved.”
That conversation took place back in August, and some are claiming that a confidential dossier on the scandal, drawn up by a commission of cardinals and recently handed to the Pope, is explosive and implicates a number of senior officials. Sources close to the Pope’s aides have told the Register that he has been betrayed by some people whom he thought were old and trusted friends from Germany, but being an intensely loyal person, he has never sought to take action against them.
Wearied by Vatican Infighting?
Others point to rivalries within the Roman Curia, most notably between the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and some of the “old guard” who served in the Curia during John Paul II’s pontificate. These curial officials consider Cardinal Bertone an outsider and out of his depth (unusually for a secretary of state, he is not a Vatican diplomat nor a linguist) but intensely loyal to the Pope.
Some observers also argue that allegations of corruption in the Curia, and attacks against those who tried to stamp it out (Archbishop Carlo Viganò, the nuncio to the United States, is one such former Vatican official who was allegedly forced out on account of his anti-corruption efforts), is more evidence of these rivalries.
To give credence to this theory, these observers have highlighted the Pope’s last homily, given last week on Ash Wednesday, in which he chose not to focus on the problems outside the Church, such as secularism and relativism, but, rather, internal squabbles.
Reflecting on the importance of testimony and how it can sometimes be “disfigured,” the Pope said he was thinking “about sins against the unity of the Church, the divisions in the ecclesial body.” He said living Lent “in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry is a humble and precious sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent.”
Although these internal squabbles did not directly cause the Pope to resign, it’s conceivable that he felt too old to be able to deal with them and other issues of Church governance or to adequately oversee those who were not competent enough to manage them themselves.
As the Vicar of Christ, Benedict has always tried to point others to the Lord, but observers say his inability to govern to his own high standard has led him to believe that his presence is starting to obscure that vision.
“The Church is built on the rock of Peter, and we have the assurance of non praevalebunt [“The gates of hell shall not prevail”],” said Badde. “But when the rock realizes he is starting to crumble away, then it is only fair and right that he exercise his sovereign liberty and choose not to be the rock anymore, but instead make way for the next Peter, the next firm and solid rock.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.