Looking Back at Benedict XVI’s Fateful Decision

U.S. Catholic leaders say that the pope emeritus’ resignation taught valuable lessons.

Pope Benedict celebrates Mass on Ash Wednesday 2013, two days after he announced his intention to resign the papacy.
Pope Benedict celebrates Mass on Ash Wednesday 2013, two days after he announced his intention to resign the papacy. (photo: CNA/Stephen Driscoll)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalls his “disbelief” when he heard the news from Rome on Feb. 11, 2013.

According to media reports, then-Pope Benedict XVI had announced to a gathering of cardinals that he would resign from the Petrine office. It was the first resignation of a pope in almost 600 years, and Benedict had explained that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Initially, the shocking news “mystified” Archbishop Kurtz. But over the past year, he has developed a deep appreciation for the moral and spiritual reflection that yielded the historic decision.

“We experienced a great act of humility and a great act of courage, because he was truly making history,” Archbishop Kurtz told the Register.

That judgment was echoed by Pope Francis, who marked the first anniversary of Benedict’s resignation with a tweet on his @Pontifex account:

“Today I invite you to pray together with me for His Holiness Benedict XVI, a man of great courage and humility,” said the Pope.

In 2013, in the immediate aftermath of Benedict’s decision, few Church leaders and commentators released comments, and many scrambled for information that would shed light on the historic action. But on this first anniversary, the resignation is widely viewed as an expression of deep faith and trust in the Lord.

With no prior knowledge of who would succeed him or what confusion might be unleashed by the unprecedented action, Benedict took that fateful step. Nearly one month later, the first Latin-American pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected, and he soon won the hearts of Catholics and other people of goodwill across the world.

But the dramatically different public personas of the German and the Argentinian popes have also spawned attacks on Benedict as a rigid Church leader who allegedly was overly concerned with the defense of hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

Today, the media’s narrative generally ignores the singular nature of Benedict’s decision, yet when the resignation first made headlines, it was praised as an example for political leaders who clung to power too long.

“Catholics seem to have adjusted pretty well to the fact of Pope Benedict’s resignation and even to have accepted it as a reasonable, healthy thing for a man his age to do,” observed Russell Shaw, the author of, most recently, American Church.

“But the resignation itself has been overshadowed by what came after — I mean the election and pontificate of Pope Francis, which seems to have touched off a sort of mini revolution in Catholic psyches.

“Where this is headed, no one now can say, and that probably includes the Holy Father; but one unpleasant aspect of it is already obvious. I mean the tendency of some to contrast Francis with Benedict, to the disadvantage of the latter. Pope Benedict deserves better than that,” Shaw told the Register.


Archbishop Naumann: ‘A Wonderful Example’

Pope Francis clearly agrees with Shaw: The Vatican’s spokesman recently criticized a Rolling Stone cover story about the new Pope that took a dismissive view of his predecessor. Meanwhile, U.S. Church leaders express a deep appreciation for Benedict’s remarkable example.   

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., has not forgotten the lesson he learned from Benedict’s decision.

“It is a wonderful example and a reminder that the Church is Jesus Christ, and every one of us, whatever our role, is here to serve Our Lord and the mission of the Church,” Archbishop Naumann told the Register.

“The Church doesn’t belong to the pope or the bishops. We all have a season in which we serve the Church. His resignation made that clear.”

Recalling Benedict’s path to the papacy — as the shy scholar who thought he would retire and pursue his studies, only to be elected pope — Archbishop Naumann suggested that the resignation reflected Joseph Ratzinger’s deep faith and characteristic “trust in God.”

“When he assumed the papacy, it was a departure from his plans and a great act of faith,” the archbishop said. “That same trust was expressed in his resignation: He had many collaborators, but no peers to advise him. Still, he discerned that the Lord would provide for him and for the Church.”

For many Catholics, Francis’ popularity has offered additional assurance that Benedict’s decision was guided by the Holy Spirit. But media stories frequently present a critical portrait of the previous pope, and, thus, some of Benedict’s admirers fear that his legacy will be misunderstood or go unappreciated.

“The proper perspective is to avoid a political analysis of papal leadership,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “Rather, we need to see the Holy Spirit working in a twofold way: It was both the stepping down of Benedict and the election of Francis.”

He added, “There is a great continuity between Benedict and Francis as vicars of Christ. We embrace the freshness of Francis, who cuts through intellectual arguments and warms hearts. But Benedict beautifully expressed the love of Christ in Deus Caritas Est.”


Freedom for Future Popes

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the publisher of Ignatius Press, who once studied under Joseph Ratzinger during his days as an academic in Germany, viewed the media’s skewed portrayal as the predictable pattern of news coverage that celebrates the “new, because what is new is news. And they are always offended that the Church won’t change.”

Father Fessio said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the news of the resignation, and he suggested that the decision frees Benedict’s successors to consider that option if they believe they can no longer perform their duties. Indeed, Father Fessio said it is possible in future years that more than one pope emeritus at a time might live in retirement at the Vatican.

“He had already said very clearly in his interview in Light of the World that the pope would be obliged to resign if he didn’t have physical and spiritual strength to carry on his office,” Father Fessio noted, citing Benedict’s forthright comments during a book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald.

“He made a very wise and courageous decision,” Father Fessio said. “It was not unlike him. He is a man who does things that follow his principles, so that is no surprise.”

Will the resignation change Catholics’ view of the Petrine office?

“I assume there has been no substantial change in the meaning and role of the pope, but there is a change in the way it has been exercised,” Father Fessio acknowledged.

Benedict now lives in a monastery within the Vatican, and, over the past year, Pope Francis has expressed gratitude for his wise counsel.

Father Fessio likened Benedict’s new role to “having a hermit living near you. You might draw on his wisdom, but you don’t invite him to social occasions. That is what Benedict is: a hermit. I can’t think he is not writing. Someone said he is working on an extended autobiography.”


Benedict’s Remarkable Legacy

Benedict’s remarkable legacy of speeches, encyclicals and books during his papacy has sparked prediction that he will one day be made a doctor of the Church.

“Benedict will go down as the most academic and intelligent pope in history. He has a few rivals, but not many. He is a clear doctor of the Church on whose legacy we will depend to understand what the Church means,” Jesuit Father James Schall told the Register.

Father Fessio also points to Benedict’s personal virtues.

“If any pope is a saint, this one is. He is gentle and humble. Anyone who has worked closely with him admires and respects him. No one who has worked closely with him has criticized him. That is unusual,” he said.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., for one, said he continues to be inspired by Benedict’s striking example.

“He was putting his ministry and legacy on the line. It is the kind of decision that can only be fully appreciated with the insight of history. In that sense, we are too close to it,” Bishop Tobin told the Register.

“But it has opened up a new chapter in the history of the Church with the leadership that Pope Francis is giving us. Pope Benedict realized the need for such leadership and was open to the Spirit.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.

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