The National Catholic Review

Pope Benedict’s statement is every bit as striking as his resignation itself.  It deserves attention before talk turns to succession. This is not simply a retirement from the hectic pace of public office.  It is an act of magisterial teaching in its own right that resonates with an important, and often-unremarked strand of his pontificate.  Benedict emphasizes the humanity of the Papacy and the demands of history.  He humbly admits that he no longer possesses the mental and physical strength to lead the Church as it faces “rapid changes” and is “shaken” by deep questions concerning the “life of faith.” 

From the beginning of his papacy, in the shadow of John Paul—then called “the Great”—Benedict has struck a lower profile. Of course he lacked his predecessor’s charisma, but his gestures were so often intentional. At his first World Youth Day, he turned from an adoring crowd chanting “Ben-ne-det-to” in silence to face the Eucharist in benediction. 

His resignation continues this strand of his papacy—a reduction of the office in a way, subordinating it to tradition. His encyclicals were noteworthy for subordinating his own authorial voice to the broad witnesses of the tradition. He continued to write his own theology, but published his christology with a secular press, scrupulously avoiding assigning magisterial authority to his personal theology.

Benedict broke with the modern papacy since Pius IX, but especially with John Paul II whose sacral understanding of the office was most evident in his final years when the increasingly infirm pontiff occupied the office as a martyr of sorts—a witness to fidelity even in the face of profound physical and mental infirmity. Some applauded this as a witness to the dignity of aging.  But so many people witness to this dignity without holding a demanding office that they can no longer properly dispatch. Benedict will continue to serve the Church “through a life dedicated to prayer.”  Having ascended the Chair of Peter, he will now step down. The power of that humble act should not go unremarked.

I recall a conversation with a European scholar who criticized Benedict for making the papacy “small.” In some ways, I suspect that was his intent. Benedict is carefully refining the definition of the papacy even as he leaves it.


Bruce Snowden | 2/12/2013 - 6:42pm

Nat Campbell's post is painfully honest, but it's the final sentence that I marvel at and fully agree, in that despite all the scandals and unsavory political maneuverings of the past and to a degree even in the present, he said, "the Holy Spirit still manages to hold things together from falling apart!" Jesus said, "I am with you all days ...." showing thankfully what a fantastic Manager the Holy Spirit is! Mr. Campbell, in my opinion a good post.

Maureen LAMARCHE CND | 2/12/2013 - 7:21am

From the beginning of his papacy he was imaged as a gentle man. A gentle man is a humble man. This image always impressed me more than Pope.

Joseph Quigley | 2/12/2013 - 1:45am

I am impressed by the positive tenor of all the comments so far. I worked in a federal bureaucracy for thirtytwo years. When I began it was a fairly flat structure with few layers. Those at the bottom felt their work was appreciated as it passed up through supervisor, coordinator, branch head, division head, CEO. Over time technology reduced the ranks at the bottom, middle management burgeoned, and senior management became bewildered as they were expected to know how what landed on their desk had been produced. Power, financial reward and prestige were the new goals, not public service. I think something simila happened in the catholic church. And I think it finally dawned on Benedict XVI that despite his theological learning and his trust in the Holy Spirit he did not have the mental toughness and the robust health to "manage" the bureaucracy that the Curia had become. I'm sure every word of his resignation speech will be analysed to death - and I feel sure it will contain Latinisms that can have several interpretations - but I feel fraternal charity will curtail him from pointing the finger at any particular person, policy or practice that led him to this historic admission that he was no longer up to the job. Would that others in high places - not just in the catholic church - would be so fearless and honest in making such an appraisal of their competence. May he enjoy his well-earned rest.

Nathaniel Campbell | 2/12/2013 - 2:08pm

I think you'll find that "power, financial reward, and prestige" becoming "the new goals" in the Church is a story nearly as old as the Church itself. After Constantine legalized Christianity and it grew to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, laws had to be passed barring individual clergy from inheriting donations to the Church because too many were growing rich and lazy off of the alms of the faithful. Later on, in the Middle Ages, similar laws were used to keep the Church's money from being inherited by the bastard sons of priests and their mistresses -- though of course, one motivation for enforcing priestly celibacy was to keep the Church's money inside the Church rather than being inherited by the families of priests.

The so-called Gregorian Reform of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was in part a response to rampant corruption and greed within the Church, embodied in the widespread practice of "simony" (the buying and selling of Church offices). One on the short list of popes who have "resigned" was Benedict IX in 1045 -- his was one of the most notoriously corrupt papacies of all time, in the course of which he had to bribe the Roman electors on three separate occasions to keep him on the Chair of St. Peter in the face of rival anti-Popes. Finally, the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, had had enough and bribed Benedict IX to resign so that he could put an end to the mess; and his successors instituted the College of Cardinals and the new election procedures that will be used again next month.

In the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Roman Church became the world's first multinational corporation, and the layers of bureaucracy were slowly ramped up. (A great book to read on this is Robert Brentano's "Two Churches: England and Italy in the Thirteenth Century".) And of course, we shouldn't forget the late medieval papacy, in which the bastard sons of Borgia popes were ruling the great city-states of Italy, and Pope Leo X Medici's lavish dinner parties cost so much money, he had to commission the special sale of indulgences in Germany to finance the continued construction of the new St. Peter's Basilica. And we all know what happened after that.

As long as the institutional church has had access to a sufficient amount of money and power, that money and power has been corrupting the hearts of the Church's ministers. The miracle of it all is that the Holy Spirit still manages to keep the whole thing from falling apart.

JOHN AKERS | 2/12/2013 - 7:25pm

My compliments Nathaniel Campbell on an excellent post. May the Holy Spirit be especially with us during this time of transition.

Bruce Snowden | 2/11/2013 - 6:22pm

God’s has given his Word that, “The prayer of the humble man shall pierce the clouds.” Pope Benedict’s humble resignation makes him a worthy beneficiary of God’s promise. Humility is nothing more than the admission, “I am what I am, nothing more, nothing less” – humility is all about truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, having nothing to do with self-defamation. This is a principal attribute of saints, so, in his “final act of Papal teaching” Pope Benedict XVI shows himself to the Church and the world to be first and foremost, a Saint of God!
In his witness of retirement Pope Benedict said the Church is facing “rapid changes.” This statement is tantalizing filled with wonder. Was he foreseeing ecclesial disciplinary structures of some kind’ “new wine into new wineskins” replacing whatever? Or was he talking about collapsing social order, some ways already in place? Or has he foreseen the advent of both?
He also spoke about the Church “shaken” by deep questions on the “life of Faith.” What does that mean? “Shaken” is a pretty powerful word! That interest stirs my soul making me eager to help, to want to find answers, even though frankly, I lack credential to do so! But I can pray.
Benedict also said he “no longer possesses the mental, or physical strength” to effectively minister to his Petrine responsibilities. That poignant honesty is profoundly admirable, yet it hurts to hear a man of his tightly tuned intellect, a scholar without peer, say that! I just hope his admission to lack of “mental strength” isn’t related to early dementia or worse!
Whatever the case, God bless Pope Benedict the Great! A complex human being, maybe at times difficicult to understand, but above all a good, saintly man and without question “totus catholicus!”

JONATHAN WOODHALL REV | 2/11/2013 - 5:55pm

I do believe that this decision may be one of the most important ones in the history of the "papacy" as an institution. I always considered that as a good German this pope would doggedly do his duty as a pastor. This may be his finest hour. The rest of the story must be handed over to the Spirit and we have to pray that the human instruments listen to the Spirit and not make it into a Curial football match.

Bill Mazzella | 2/11/2013 - 5:24pm

Did Ratzinger finally find himself as his life nears its end. Did he realize that perhaps he should have resisted the monarchical church for a church that was more living as he indicated in his earlier writings?

Joseph Quigley | 2/11/2013 - 5:19pm

There is hardly a situation that occurs in the life of man that Shakespeare has not summarised in a phrase.
After February 28 2013 anything that Joseph Ratzinger (prev. Benedict XVI) says, does or teaches will be Papal.
He has committed in my view the ultimate act of truth and humility. He has recognised what and who he really is and has handed over to the will of God what and who can really become.
I paraphrase Malcolm's words in Macbeth: "Nothing in his Papacy became him like the leaving it. He resigned as one that had been studied in his resignation to sign away the highest role a priest can aspire to
as if his talents were not up to the task."

Bill Mazzella | 2/11/2013 - 5:23pm

Did Ratzinger finally find himself as his life nears its end. Did he realize that perhaps he should have resisted the monarchical church for a church that was more living as he indicated in his earlier writings?

JACK HUNT | 2/11/2013 - 1:12pm

Pensive, patient, prayerful and pragmatic would be one way to describe Pope Benedict XVI. Popes come and go. This pope has tweaked the papacy in many ways and his resignation is a final gesture of the same stature. A pope who resigns strips, hopefully once and for all, the notion of the pope as someone who in a merely terrestrial sense is "seated at the right hand of God." The papacy can perhaps in the minds of a billion Catholics and all others become truly a ministry rather than a kind of monarchy.

Nathaniel Campbell | 2/11/2013 - 12:59pm

I think this in many ways reflects a return for Ratzinger to an earlier stage in his ecclesiology, for it fits perfectly with the reformed vision of the Church's future that he sketched in his 1969 radio address, "What Will the Church Look Like in 2000?" (published in the book, The Faith and the Future). This post-conciliar vision of reform (which I analyzed last year in connection to his raising St. Hildegard of Bingen to the altar) saw times of both crisis and renewal ahead for the Church, which would issue in a smaller yet holier institution. It would be a Church that shed its arrogant and palmy claims to worldly greatness in the pursuit of a humility born of the meeting with Christ at its heart and soul.

And as our Lord reminds us, faith need not be physically large to be fruitful, for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.

ed gleason | 2/11/2013 - 12:57pm

"that was his intent' good
I'm hoping for "bishop of Rome' and "First among equals'