The Pope abdicates!

THE RELIGION GUY, instead of waiting for a question to be posted, offers some quick thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement today that he will resign February 28 as leader of the world’s billion-plus Catholics.

The timing is notable, coming just before Ash Wednesday without waiting till after Holy Week. Far more amazing  is the resignation itself. Like England’s monarchs or certain other religious dynasts, popes simply do not resign. The last one who did, Gregory XII, stepped down in a 1415 A.D. emergency deal to end the ruinous Great Schism with its rival pontiffs. Benedict’s move, by contrast, was purely personal. He said he “repeatedly examined my conscience before God” and decided he lacked the physical strength for “an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

The Guy leaves it to expert Vaticanologists to assess this Pope’s accomplishments during a reign of just under eight years. But the resignation will surely be regarded as his most significant act. A highly traditional priest has taken a highly radical step. He may be implicitly questioning his close colleague and predecessor John Paul II, who felt a duty during decline to hang on till death. Regardless, Benedict has forever changed his sacred office. All future popes will face the question of abdication when they reach a phase of physical or mental limitations. The resignation signals to the world Benedict’s awareness that John Paul permanently altered expectations for the ancient office. Popes are now globe-trotters and media stars, not the mysterious and remote figures of old. And in the age of the Internet and cable news, important policy moves (e.g. how to handle those unending and dispiriting priestly molestation scandals) can no longer to delayed for months — or years.

In nationality terms, the election of John Paul from Poland followed  immediately by Benedict from Germany is also historic. Everyone will now speculate whether it’s time for another Italian again or whether the cardinals will innovate by looking to Latin America or Canada or Africa for a pope. (You can forget any idea of a U.S. pontiff.) As always, the subtle politicking will be a wonder. Consider this: Will Benedict as the powerful Pope Emeritus apply leverage behind the scenes? [Updating Feb. 12: A Vatican spokesman says Benedict will be living at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome when the cardinals gather to elect his successor, indicating he will play no role.   Later, when renovations are completed, he will move into the Vatican's Mater Ecclesiae residence near the apartments where the new Pope will live, thus readily available for private advice if asked.]

When John Paul died, countless supposed specialists — The Guy included — figured the then Cardinal Ratzinger would never be elected. He was too controversial due to efforts on discipline while heading the Vatican’s doctrine office, too close to his predecessor, a bit too old, a bit too German, and on and on. Keep that in mind during coming days as papal pundits speculate  on who’s in and who’s out in the pre-election maneuvering.

A final journalistic note: So far as The Guy knows, Benedict was interviewed only once by the “secular” media, when he was running the doctrinal “congregation.” That hour-plus session involved The Guy alongside “Time” magazine colleagues John Moody and Greg Burke (later of Fox News) who had arranged the remarkable session. The contents are owned by “Time,” but The Guy can say he was struck by this man’s gentle and humble manner, his world-class intellect, and his total command of English in discussing intricate topics –  the first pope in history to have that skill.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Duane Klein

    In light of this event, do you think Time will re-release that interview you were part of?

    • Richard Ostling

      We’ll see, but perhaps not, since it was not used when Benedict was chosen as pope. Incidentally this historically important material consisted of Cardinal Ratzinger’s thorough written answers to questions we posed in advance, followed by the hour-plus of face-to-face discussion. Colleagues John Moody, the last person to head a full-fledged “Time” bureau in Rome, remains a Fox News Channel executive while Greg Burke recently left the reporter ranks to work on communications for the Vatican.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The Latin for Canon 332 §2 states, “Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat…” In other words, it’s technically a renunciation — he’s renouncing the office. The same word is used for a bishop’s “resignation” in Canons 401 and 411. It’s the same thing that happens if someone wants to withdraw a case pending before a diocesan or pontifical tribunal — the person renounces the case.

    A couple of nits to pick: “He may be implicitly questioning his close colleague and predecessor John Paul II, who felt a duty during decline to hang on till death.” A lot of journos have said this. I wholeheartedly disagree. There is no questioning, implicitly or explicitly. You saw his humble manner and he would not think of criticizing in any way at all a man he loved dearly. It is simply a matter of two different styles.

    “…The Guy can say he was struck by this man’s gentle and humble manner, his world-class intellect, and his total command of English in discussing intricate topics – the first pope in history to have that skill.” Um, no. Pope John Paul II had that same skill. He discussed the intricate topics of theology and philosophy many times with many people in English.

    • Richard Ostling

      By “total command” The Guy meant not only comprehension but verbal facility. My understanding is that John Paul II fully understood written English and was somewhat less skilled in comprehending spoken English but his fluency in speaking it conversationally was far below Benedict’s skill. Perhaps experts who conversed with both Popes can tell us more.

  • David D

    So on March 1, will Pope Benedict XVI become Joseph Ratzinger again? And will he still be, ontologically, THE POPE, once he renounces the office?

    • Richard Ostling

      Church authorities indeed have some things to sort out. The Guy’s guesses: He’ll be like any other retired bishop whose successor is now in charge. Presumably known as Benedict but would he still be addressed as “Holy Father”? Under canon law he clearly will not be the one and only Pope. Press speculation about conflict between the old and the new Pope is overblown. Benedict may confer privately on things when asked by colleagues but wouldn’t do or say anything in public that would create confusion — rather like the traditional protocol for former U.S. Presidents.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      There is some confusion over the ontological nature of the Papacy. Catholic theology only discusses ontological change when it comes to sacramental issues. So baptism, confirmation and ordination all confer graces which grant a permanent spiritual/sacramental character in the person. Once baptized, confirmed or ordained, you cannot be unbaptized, unconfirmed or unordained because there has been a permanent alteration in your soul. (Priests who have been laicized (“defrocked” in popular parlance, but that’s not a Catholic term) are simply returned to the lay state, but they have not lost their priestly character and can still hear confessions and grant absolution in life and death situations.)

      The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. Like every other bishop, he has received the fullness of orders, but there is no particular *sacramental* grace or character which is given him for his office in the See of Peter. So no, he will not ontologically be THE POPE once he leaves office.

      As far as his title, I have seen reports going both ways — that he will once again be referred to as Cardinal Ratzinger, but others have said he will still be addressed as “Your Holiness.” We’ll see what he says.

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