BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — [Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 17] Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign his office on Feb. 28 shocked Catholics who expected him to remain in office until his death.
While Church leaders have since described the move as an act of profound “humility,” some media commentators and longtime critics have presented the decision as a stark break with tradition, resonating far beyond the individual Pope.
“This decision has been the only great reform of Benedict, and, at the same time, it is a revolutionary step for the Catholic Church,” said Marco Politi, the author of a book on Pope Benedict, in a Feb. 11 interview with The New York Times.
Politi described the move as a “free decision made by the Pope that will set an example also for the future, setting a limit for the pontificate.”
Thus, the Pope’s impending resignation will likely become part of the larger debate about the immutability of Church teaching and papal authority in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. At the same time, many of the pope's admirers also view the decision as an effort to introduce the fresh, energetic leadership needed to secure and advance the New Evangelization.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan reported that during conversations with her broad circle of Catholic contacts, she “detected..[a] deep, unshaken, even cheerful faith accompanied by a certain anxiety, even foreboding.”
A New York City pastor told Noonan: People are “asking, What does it mean for the papacy? Will future popes be pressured to leave? Is it a sign of the technological thing that wears people out?"
One Catholic journalist told Noonan: "I trust Papa to know that he is doing the right thing, and the best thing, for the church."
The journalist asserted that elements within the Church sought to reverse the legacy of Pope Benedictor and Blessed John Paul II, and "that is the practical reason Benedict is doing this now—he is a mystic but a very practical, clear-eyed one. He knows that he has more sway over the conclave alive than dead."
When Pope Benedict read his statement of resignation before a gathering of cardinals on Feb. 11, his brief but precise language identified his growing physical frailty as the primary reason for his decision.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” read Pope Benedict’s statement.
Mindful, no doubt, of the still powerful memory of Blessed John Paul II’s struggle to fulfill his public duties despite failing health, Pope Benedict said that he was “well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
The decision to resign, then, was the result of an intense examination of conscience, leavened by the awareness that in an era of “rapid changes … I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Subsequently, canon lawyers and Church historians confirmed that Benedict XVI is not the first pope to resign and that his decision does not violate canon law.
Public opinion, however, is hard to predict, and some worry that confusion regarding the meaning and purpose of Pope Benedict's decision could result in the demystification of the Petrine Office, and possibly weaken the Church's efforts to spiritually revitalize the West.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expressed the anxiety of Catholics who fear that the headlines fueled by the Pope’s decision will ultimately transform the Pope into a glorified CEO with no distinctive spiritual or moral authority.
“There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive,” wrote Douthat in a Feb. 11 column.
“And if papal resignations became commonplace and expected, I worry that they might end up burdening the papacy with a weight it cannot bear — encouraging Catholics to lay far too much stress on the human qualities of the See of Peter’s occupant and encouraging the world at large to judge the faith’s truth claims on whether the Vatican seemed to be running smoothly and whether the pope’s approval ratings were robust.”
Father George Rutler echoed this concern in a Crisis magazine post that presented the Church’s mind on the nature of papal authority.
When “the pope relinquishes the Petrine authority, he does not submit a letter of resignation to any individual, for the only one capable of receiving it is Christ. This is why ‘renunciation’ or ‘abdication’ is a more accurate term than ‘resignation,’ in the case of the Supreme Pontiff,” said Father Rutler.
“Unless this is understood, the danger is that a superficial world will try to refashion the pope into some kind of amiable but transient office holder. Popes are not Dutch royalty.”
Added Father Rutler, “[T]he papacy’s authority is absolute and not gratuitous, and its exercise cannot be only conditional and validated by human approval.”
Indeed, in the published text of his Feb. 11 announcement, the Holy Father carefully refrained from employing the term “resign,” stating instead that, “with full freedom, I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. … The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (881-882).
A Service to the Church
Yet after his many years as both the prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and as the Roman Pontiff, Pope Benedict undoubtedly foresaw the possibility of honest confusion and political spin resulting from his decision.
And while those problems will likely linger, Andreas Widmar, the author of The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II's Lessons in Leadership to a Young Swiss Guard, has suggested that the Holy Father performed an important and groundbreaking service for the Church and his successors in the Petrine office.
After “setting the stage” for the New Evangelization, observed Widmer in a column for the Huffington Post, “Benedict XVI apparently felt that the leader of this effort should bring youth and vitality to the job.”
“The timing he chose is greatly important," Widmer commented. “If he had waited until pundits, even only a few, would call for his abdication, it would be too late.”
Indeed, moral theologian Pia de Solenni has suggested that the pope's decision affirmed the depth of his commitment and love for the Church.
“On a very practical and political level, the pope needs to be strong in every sense, not just spiritually,” argued Pia de Solenni in a Feb. 15 column in the Washington Times.
“Otherwise, there’s a risk that he will become the puppet of others, merely being a mouthpiece for their agenda….Benedict is right to avoid that risk and to do whatever he can to ensure that the leadership of the Catholic Church is as good as it can be, even if that means stepping down himself."
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.