So, is Benedict XVI lying about motives for his retirement?

So let’s say that The Telegraph prints a story from its Rome bureau about the interesting new statements by Pope Benedict XVI about events surrounding his historic decision to retire. The top of the story, logically enough, starts with Benedict’s own point of view:

“God told me to do it,” the 86-year-old former pontiff told a friend, six months after his decision to step down shocked the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

God had implanted in his heart the “absolute desire” to resign and to devote himself to a life of prayer and reflection, Benedict told the anonymous confidante, according to Zenit, a Rome-based Catholic news agency.

“It was not because of any type of apparition or phenomenon of that sort,” he said, but instead the result of a “mystical experience” received during “a direct rapport with the Lord”. He said the more he sees the “charisma” of Pope Francis, his successor, the more he is convinced that it was “the will of God” that he became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.

So far, pretty normal stuff — journalistically speaking.

However, later in the story the omniscient editorial voice of the newsroom added:

Benedict returned to live in the Vatican in May, saying that he would remain “hidden from the world”, devoting the rest of his life to prayer and theological study. His remarks will do little to dampen speculation about the more worldly reasons for his departure.

Although old and frail, he does not appear to be suffering from any specific illness, prompting speculation about his true motives.

Etc., etc. Now, you put these two sections of the news report together and you can get this kind of distressed remark from a faithful GetReligion reader:

“So, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a liar?”

Actually, no, for at least two reasons — one journalistic and the other theological.

First of all, it’s a statement of fact, verified by the Vatican, that Benedict XVI made these remarks. The story says that.

Also, it is a point of journalistic fact that plenty of people — inside and outside the church of Rome — continue to speculate about the “real” reasons about his departure. That’s a fact and, thus, the story properly says so.

At the same time, the pope has described some of this message from God, but not all of it. It is entirely possible that in this experience of divine contact or presence he felt a sense of conviction about some of recent events and trends in the church, such as the decades of scandals linked to the clergy sexual abuse of children and teens. It’s possible that he believes God instructed him that it would be better for a fresh broom to attack these issues.

In other words, it’s easy to see both of these sections of the story fitting together logically. Truth is, Benedict said nothing to describe the content of his word from his Lord God.

You can see some of that same logic in the Los Angeles Times take on this event, especially near the end of the top section of the story:

ROME – Former Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the world by resigning in February, has reportedly revealed that God told him to do it during a “mystical experience.”

The first pontiff to step down in six centuries, Benedict said, “God told me to,” when asked about his decision to dedicate himself to a life of prayer instead.

The 86-year-old pope emeritus said he had not witnessed a vision of God but had undergone a months-long “mystical experience” during which God gave him the “absolute desire” to forge a deeper relationship with him. Benedict also said that the more he witnessed the “charisma” of his extremely popular successor, Pope Francis, the more he understood how his stepping aside was the “will of God.”

And this “charisma,” of course, might include human and spiritual gifts related to the challenges that so burdened Benedict XVI.

Of course, this story also mentions the months of speculation about the “real” motives for Benedict’s historic decision. That’s part of the public record.

Once again, let me note: Maybe the “real” reason for the retirement consists of divine revelation about how best to handle these burdens and scandals. That’s a logical way to look at the mysterious content of the retired pope’s statement.

PHOTO: Vatican press office

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I guess I disagree, tmatt. This paragraph does it for me: “Although old and frail, he does not appear to be suffering from any specific illness, prompting speculation about his true motives.”

    I understand perfectly the spiritual ties to the very physical and political realities Benedict was facing. And I understand quite well that the mystical experience — as well as his own understanding of what that experience meant — would be tied to those physical and political realities.

    What I don’t like about the Telegraph’s statement is that it sounds like, “Well, we heard what he’s saying, but we know that can’t be the real reason because that’s just that phony spirituality stuff that the Catholic Church peddles. Because we all know that, bottom line, all that really goes on in that church is politically motivated, so he had to have some other reason than God telling him to do it.” The snearing and snickering in that paragraph are — to my ears — all too evident.

    • James Stagg

      I agree, Thomas. Thanks for your words.

      • tmatt

        So you are saying that it is journalistically inaccurate to say that there has been speculation about his motives?

        • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

          No. But does the author quote who’s speculating about his motives? No; so it seems the author is the one doing the speculating.

          And then there’s that little word “true” — it clearly implies that the mystical experience which resulted in “God told me to” is false.

        • James Stagg

          No, tmatt, that would be reporting about what someone had said….even if it were only anonymous speculation, and proper journalism. What seems to be the purpose of the author, however, is to stoke yet one more “conspiracy theory” about why B16 stepped down. That is “yellow” journalism, at best. From the article (no quotes):

          Benedict returned to live in the Vatican in May, saying that he would remain “hidden from the world”, devoting the rest of his life to prayer and theological study. His remarks will do little to dampen speculation about the more worldly reasons for his departure..

  • Cassandra

    “First of all, it’s a statement of fact, verified by the Vatican, that Benedict XVI made these remarks. The story says that.”

    Whether Benedict *actually* said it is unconfirmed. Anonymous source, confirmed by anonymous source. Speculating on anonymous stories is a waste of time.

    Furthermore, it is odd that God would take a radically new approach to asking a pope to step aside. Death has historically been God’s way of passing the torch.

    And more, this supposed “growing conviction” aligns all too closely with Ratzinger/Benedict’s personal desire to retire even when he was Prefect of the CDF. So even if he actually did feel such a “growing conviction”, one must remember that individuals can be mistaken about the source of mystical experiences, even the pope.

    Until all these unknowns are cleared up, I’m pretty skeptical about “God telling him to abdicate.”

  • bender

    What’s worse is that posts like this, with the sensational headline screaming, “So, is Benedict XVI lying about motives for his retirement?” only serve to further question his motives, while advancing the narrative that his honesty is at issue.

    In the guise of supposedly defending Benedict, you are effectively smearing him.

    In any event, the whole issue is silly. That Benedict was inspired to take the step he took was known from the very beginning. That the Holy Spirit inspires popes to take all sorts of actions has been known for 2000 years.

    That God speaks to all of us, every day, via the conscience is not news. It is fundamental doctrine.

  • DorothyPalmer

    A “mystical;” experience? Ratzinger? The same ratzinger that moved Woytyla to canonization while Woytyla did nothing against Legion of Christ serial pedophile Marcal Marciel? The same Ratzinger who pushed for Vatican 2 and then as Pope said it was a comic failure? The whole notion is totally laughable.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    If you believe in God anything is possible–even a pope actually having a mystical experience. But since polls repeatedly show journalists are usually non-believers, media skepticism and negativity is bound to be rampant in coverage of this story.

  • Gordis85

    I trust Papa Benedict to be a simple and honest and very holy man. I am glad he is well and has remained so. Whatever may have happened is between him and his Lord. That he remains united to us in prayer is a great consolation as Pope Francis and the Church, and the world for that matter, are in great need. Long may his loving memory live.

  • Tom Hanson

    The same sort of thing happened to Thomas Aquinas, cold, rationalist theologian that he was. Saying mass, he stopped suddenly. He quit theologising immediately, and devoted himself to prayer, communing with god, and the writing of hymns. per G K Chestern in The Dumb Ox. Today probably the scientific explanation would be something like, one aspect of his Self overrode other aspects of his Self in a definitive way sometimes heard by the subject as a voice from outside himself. In general today’s reporters can’t imagine even that happening to anyone in a state of sound mental health, much less a pope.

    • Tom Hanson

      Sorry– Chesterton

  • revrobertwaters

    “God” has “told” people all sorts of things over the years, some of them pretty horrific. As a Lutheran, my conviction is that in nearly all of these cases what’s really going on is that people mistake subjective emotions, impressions and even emotional preferences for the voice of God. I do not believe that God “told” Pope Benedict to retire, but I have absolutely no doubt that he believes that He did. So no, the pope emeritus is not a liar. Just an Enthusiast.


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