A Historic Departure: Reflections on Benedict XVI’s surprise decision to resign
On Feb. 11 Pope Benedict XVI employed an ancient language to announce a decision that will have far-reaching implications for the modern church. The pope declared in Latin his resignation from the See of Saint Peter, catching the world by surprise and moving many to reflect not only on what is to come, but on the complicated legacy he leaves behind. We asked four contributors to weigh in.
A Humble Christian, a Complicated Papacy
The news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation came as a surprise, but it did not shock me. For Pope Benedict has shown devotion to Celestine V, the sainted pope, who voluntarily resigned and was later murdered in 1296. Celestine was defamed by Dante—in the Inferno Dante called Celestine's resignation “the Great Refusal”—because the pope’s abdication opened the way to civil war in Italy. After the earthquake in Aquila, Italy, in 2009, Benedict made a pilgrimage to Celestine’s tomb. By some reckonings, it was his third visit there. It could have been just devotion to the memory of “a humble Christian,” as the Italian writer Ignazio Silone called Celestine. Now, it may be seen in a different light as a prayerful step toward resignation.
Especially on the Catholic left and in the United States, where theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., and Margaret Farley, R.S.M., were censured and the Leadership Conference of Religious Women came under investigation, Benedict’s papacy has been regarded warily. Major reforms in the liturgy, like the new English translation and the extraordinary (Latin) form of the Mass, were imposed on skeptical English-speaking celebrants, and reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X (the Lefebvrists) was pursued beyond all reason. Pope Benedict never seemed to appreciate the depth of the desire that bishops be held accountable in the sex abuse scandal. These issues will remain neuralgic for some time to come. But Benedict also made many positive contributions that should not be ignored.
His encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” with its affirmation of structural reform as “political charity” and his call for a global authority to regulate the financial sector, may be the most radical since Pope John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris” 50 years ago. Though not a diplomat himself, he conducted extraordinary visits to Turkey, Britain and the Holy Land. His address to the British leadership in Westminster Hall was both a diplomatic and personal triumph.
Following adverse Muslim reaction to his address at the University of Regensburg in 2006, he showed courage in going to Turkey and there succeeded in rebuilding relations with the Islamic world. In the United States and Britain, his apologies to victims of clerical sex abuse, though necessary, greatly eased relations in the host countries and their Catholic populations.
At times, there seems to have been a disconnect between his formal decisions and his pastoral sensitivities. He condemned “the dictatorship of relativism” but genuinely appreciated the spiritual yearnings of unchurched young people and asked them to prod the church into authenticity. While the establishment of the special ordinariate for Anglicans who wanted to come over to Roman Catholicism offended many, including members of the Roman Curia, he soon resumed cordial relations with Rowan Williams, then archbishop of Canterbury.
Benedict’s pastoral gifts were seen in his Angelus talks on the lives of saints of the day. He showed knowledge and appreciation of the saints, but also a singular ability to uncover their relevance for believers today. His meetings with local priests during vacations in early years of the pontificate showed surprising awareness of the realities of everyday pastoral ministry. Similarly, some of the early ad limina addresses to visiting bishops’ conferences showed a fresh, independent sense of personal care for the universal church, refusing to hand along the truisms handed him by the Curia.
Whatever the shortcomings of this papacy, in his resignation he has demonstrated the humility of “a simple Christian.” As “Papa Ratzinger” retires, we ought to be thankful for the many good things he has done and pray that his remaining days will be filled with peace.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.
A Man of His Words
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is a selfless and noble act done for the good of the church that he has loved and served for decades. It also shows his great spiritual freedom; rare indeed is the person who can, and will, relinquish such immense power voluntarily.
Pope Benedict likely will be remembered as a pope who, in his relatively short pontificate, sought primarily to strengthen the orthodoxy of the church by a variety of means, who authored several important encyclicals notable for their theological depth and appeal and who continued an active schedule of public appearances. He also, despite his full calendar, published three well-received books on the life of Jesus. Never the media superstar that his predecessor was, Pope Benedict, a lifelong scholar, exuded his own brand of charisma, which came from his profound theological acumen and his personal relationship with Jesus. Perhaps his most often neglected contribution to the church was his series of superb Angelus messages, delivered regularly during his public appearances in St. Peter’s Square.
His most lasting legacy, I would suggest, may not be in the various “newsworthy” acts of his papacy that were highlighted in the media so often (his long negotiations with the breakaway Society of St. Pius X; his strong disciplinary actions against the powerful founder of the Legion of Christ, who had fathered children and committed sexual abuse; the oversight of women’s religious orders in the United States, the revised English translation of the Mass; his meetings with victims of sexual abuse; his response to scandals in the Curia; or the controversy over the comments about Islam that angered many, and so on) but something far more personal: his books on Jesus. Far more people will most likely read those moving testaments to the person whose vicar he was—Jesus of Nazareth—than may read all of his encyclicals combined. Others may disagree about my emphasis on this aspect of his pontificate, but in these books, the pope brought to bear decades of scholarship and prayer to the most important question that a Christian can ask: Who is Jesus? This is the pope’s primary job—to preach the Gospel and to introduce people to Jesus—and Pope Benedict did that exceedingly well.
James Martin, S.J.
The Humanity of the Papacy
Pope Benedict XVI’s statement announcing his resignation is every bit as striking as the resignation itself. His decision to resign 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. In his statement, 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 Blessed Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict has struck a lower profile. Of course he lacked his predecessor’s charisma, but his gestures were 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 voice to the broad witnesses of the tradition. He continued to write his own theology. He published his Christology with a secular press, however, scrupulously avoiding assigning magisterial authority to his personal theology.
Benedict’s resignation breaks 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 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. This could be the most important symbolic change to the papacy since Pius IX described himself as a “prisoner of the Vatican,” surrounded by hostile secular forces. Benedict, a firm believer in the theological importance of the papacy, has with his resignation confidently and profoundly transformed it, leaving behind the monarchical trappings of holding office until death.
I recall a conversation with a European scholar who criticized Benedict for making the papacy “small.” In some ways, that may be his intent. It is certain that Benedict is carefully refining the definition of the papacy even as he leaves it.
Vincent J. Miller
A Man of Conscience
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation can be viewed as a positive development for Catholics seeking church reform. Even those who disagree with many of Pope Benedict’s theological views and actions readily recognize and praise his essential goodness as a virtuous person. Benedict has served Christ long and faithfully with years of hard and difficult work. He deserves his accolades.
Pope Benedict’s unprecedented announcement is in itself an edifying teaching act that will leave its mark in history. The pope stresses the primacy of conscience in determining his decision. Prayer guided his exercise of prudence. Pope Benedict’s authentic humility is revealed when he asks “pardon for his defects” and gives thanks to his brothers for their “love and work.” He shows an ecumenical spirit when he refers to “the Petrine ministry” as a “spiritual work” serving the supreme pastor, Jesus Christ. The pope must truly serve and never cling to power and status.
It is also a progressive moment when Benedict states that his service in the papal office can be usefully evaluated in its effectiveness. Evangelical criticism of leaders is validated. Moreover, in the act of resigning, unprecedented in our age, the pope accepts that his term of office should have a limit. Term limits and the election of leaders are key requirements for collegial participation and church reform. Would that women and the laity would be taking part in the coming election. Yet reformers inspired by the Second Vatican Council can take heart. The pope’s act of conscience reminds us once again that God is a God of surprises.