Pope Benedict XVI is resigning

Well, here’s something that doesn’t happen every century: “Pope Benedict XVI to resign, citing age.”

In a move that took the world by surprise, Pope Benedict XVI announced [today] that he will become the first pope in 600 years to resign, with plans to step down on Feb. 28.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” Benedict told cardinals as they gathered in Rome for the proclamation of new saints.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said preparations for the conclave that will elect Benedict’s successor are in the early stages.

A papal election could be expected “within 10 to 15 days” after the resignation, he said. “We should have a new pope by Easter.”

Here’s the text of the pope’s resignation speech.

Let me get this out of the way first: If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.

OK, then.

That “first pope in 600 years to resign” line in all the reporting on this refers back to Gregory XII, during the Western Schism, when there were popes all over the place. That resignation was part of the attempt to get the Vatican back to the Vatican, so it’s not really similar to the voluntary resignation Benedict XVI announced today. The last time a pope left the office this way was more than 700 years ago, when Celestine V stepped down in 1294. (Josh Marshall is trying to sort out the history of all this.)

To put that in perspective, it’s been less than 17 years since the Catholic Church kept slaves. (Yes, in 1996, Bill Clinton was president, Yahoo’s search-engine was two years old, and the Roman Catholic Church had slaves.)

News agencies are hastily editing the reports from their ready-to-go obit files to produce retrospectives on Benedict’s seven-year papacy. Read the Reuters report Internet Monk posted and you’ll note the distinctly obituarial tone of such pieces. (The practice of pre-writing obituaries may seem ghoulish to those outside the news biz, but it’s a prudent, necessary measure.)

CNN’s Belief Blog also dips into that obit file for a helpful sidebar of “Facts About Pope Benedict XVI.”

William Lindsey has a good round-up of initial responses. I like John Dwyer’s suggestion: “Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. for Pope!” And I agree with Chris Hayes, “Call me crazy, but I think the next pope should be someone who didn’t help cover up child rape.”

Andrew Sullivan also has a good collection of responses from Catholic bloggers and writers.

Daniel Horan has a quick look at what Catholic canon law does and doesn’t say about papal resignations. The odd factor being that, “the Pope does not answer to anyone, so there is no ‘technical’ recipient of his resignation. All other bishops resign to him.”

As Andrew Brown observes, “the papacy remains the last absolute monarchy in Europe,” and such regimes are “traditionally renewed by death or disease.”

Brown thinks the current pope’s experience during the waning years of John Paul II’s papacy may have convinced him that the church would be better served by resignation than by a prolonged decline:

During the decrepitude of John Paul II, Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was his right-hand man. It may be that his experience then planted in him a wish to leave office while he was still able to discharge his duties.

Whether or not that experience influenced Benedict’s decision, that is the explanation he provides, writing, “Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

That’s wise. It seems in the best interests of both himself and the institution he oversees. There may be very little precedent for a papal resignation, but perhaps Benedict’s example will set a constructive precedent for his successors. When one is 85 years old and one’s “strength of mind and body” are no longer what the job demands, stepping down is a good thing.

That’s why Wonkette’s headline — “Pope Pulls a Palin” — may be a funny crack (at Sarah Palin), but the difference between his resignation and hers is telling. She was a young, healthy governor half-way through her first term in elected office when she just quit, walking away from the responsibilities that had been entrusted to her. At 85, after a lifetime in the church, Benedict isn’t a quitter. And his willingness to relinquish power seems more responsible to me than if he had taken the route of his predecessor, stubbornly clinging to power with increasingly unsteady hands.

Hemant Mehta suggests that others with lifetime appointments might learn from Benedict’s example and also take this sensible option of not overstaying their faculties:

Note to Justice Antonin Scalia, a man who is 76, fervently Catholic, and also holds a life term: Take the hint. It’s OK to step down.

See also this from Goblinbooks: “‘Don’t Believe HR About Why I Left,’ by Pope Benedict.”


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  • mattepntr

    Speaking of the “Left Behind” brigade-


  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    “They never resign” is somehow their proof that the End Times are approaching?

    The Soviet Union fell in 1991 when some folks were saying the USSR would never fall.

    That sort of “never” thinking is just forgetting about the likelihood of low-probability events*.

    * In the case of the USSR falling, low probability within the paradigm of the people concerned.

  • P J Evans

     If they’re using  ‘they never resign’ as a marker, it seems to me that they’re about 600 years behind the times.

  • The_L1985

    More like 1800 years–Celestine V did it in 1295, Benedict IX did it in 1045, and Pontian did it in 235!

    Papal resignation has been a thing for almost as long as the papacy has.

  • Tricksterson

    Since the three men I would most like to see as pope are all dead (Robert Anton Wilson, George Carlin and Hunter S. Thompson) I nominate Bobby Henderson, founder of Pastafarianism.

  • Tricksterson

    Oh wait, Kevin Smith is Cahtolic!  Pope Silent Bob!

  • The_L1985

     I’d go with that, if only because Silent Bob would know when to keep his mouth shut.  Ratzinger was apparently not very good at that.

  • badJim

    Since I am a bad person, I’ll admit that when I hear  “He will be missed” I automatically think “Sure, but eventually someone will hit him.” (It’s kind of an old joke.)

    Since the next pope will almost certainly be another rigid conservative, the best we can hope for is an African or a Latino, a small victory for racial justice and a great blow to small minds.

    Given the recent history of the church, I’ll hazard a guess that the next pope won’t name himself “Innocent”. A common Mexican name is also out of the question: my aunt taught grade school in northern Virginia and was amused to find herself having to note “Jesus needs improving”.

  • P J Evans

    If anything, they’re more likely to be in  the hard-line group.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    Will the next Pope be another old white dude? Not necessarily – this is the first conclave that has had a genuine majority of non-europeans. It didn’t take long after the loss of the Italian majority for us to get a non-Italian Pope so it could well be that we get a non-European Pope and since the biggest group of white cardinals outside Europe is in the US and there are good political reasons to avoid an American Pope that makes a PoC Pope more likely – though not certain. (Unfortunately, as I said to a friend at work yesterday, there’s only one African Bishop I’d like to see as Pope and he’s not Catholic).

    Hopefully the Conclave will realise how tainted they all are and have the courage to look beyond their number. (Edit: No, I’m not suggesting they elect a non-catholic here just a non-cardinal).

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    (Unfortunately, as I said to a friend at work yesterday, there’s only one African Bishop I’d like to see as Pope and he’s not Catholic).

    Saint Desmond, I presume?  Yeah, I know the Anglican Communion doesn’t do canonizations, but in Archbishop Tutu’s case they might want to consider making an exception.

  • fraser
  • badJim

    Wikipedia has a sortable list of cardinals. Pick your own candidate!

  • Hexep

    My vote would be for all the cardinals to shrug their shoulders, sigh heavily, and say, ‘we have no idea what we’re doing. You see that guy in Istanbul, Bartholomew? He’s in charge now. We give up.’

  • Carstonio

    Even after Googling, I’m still not sure why John XXIII was dubbed “the good pope.” Sometimes it seemed to be his personality and sometimes his relative liberalism compared with his predecessors and successors.  He helped save the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, and he was apparently the main influence behind Nostra Aetate. I would like to think that had he lived longer, he would have followed up Vatican II by relaxing or changing Church policy on contraception, but I suspect that’s just a daydream.

  • christopher_y

    Even after Googling, I’m still not sure why John XXIII was dubbed “the good pope.”

    Well, it’s not like the competition is all that strong.

    Two of the three bookies’ favourites are African, including one called Peter (Hi there, Malachy!) and the third is a French Canadian. So if we follow the money, we can expect a non-European. All three, as far as I can see, are as conservative as you can get, although Turkson (the Ghanaian candidate) is on record as favouring banking reform FWIW. One British bookmaker has Richard Dawkins at 666 to 1.

  • Carstonio

    I remember how shocked Vatican observers were when the College of Cardinals broke with 450 years of tradition to select a non-Italian pope (Wojtyla), and how it was a non-issue 27 years later. I would have interpreted these as the Church becoming less conservative. But Jared below offers an interesting perspective from an ex-boss. A culture “indulges in enjoyment of life” might be seen as anti-conservative if not liberal, at least from the perspective of US residents familiar with “sex might lead to dancing” Protestant fundamentalism. Fred has pointed out that US evangelical rhetoric on contraception has come to resemble Catholic teaching, and perhaps the narrowing of the theological or rhetorical distinctions is somewhat mutual. A few of the Catholics I know are boycotting the Girl Scout cookie sales, and I wouldn’t have expected that from them 10 years ago.

  • The_L1985

     Church policy on contraception didn’t exist until 1968.

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    There was a policy, but it wasn’t quite as set in stone as it became with the publication of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.  That encyclical was based on the minority report of the commission originally established by John XXIII to study the problem of contraception (the real problem, in the hierarchy’s eyes, being the conflict between church doctrine and the facts on the ground, which could potentially undermine the entire concept of papal infallibility).  Had John lived long enough for the commission to complete its work, he might have accepted the findings of the majority.  The minority report, intended for the Pope’s eyes only, made it explicitly clear that the point, in their eyes, was to protect the church’s authority:

    “If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951.

    “It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which Popes and Bishops have either condemned, or at least not approved.”

    Obviously, admitting that the Protestants were right and the previous Popes were wrong would be far, far worse than condemning “thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice” that damned well should be not only condoned but encouraged, because it materially improves the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

  • fraser
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30319652 Tim Lehnerer

    The Pope doesn’t even have to be Catholic. I could die happy if they decided to install me as Anti-Pope Telstar I.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Note to Justice Antonin Scalia, a man who is 76, fervently Catholic, and also holds a life term: Take the hint. It’s OK to step down.

    And I’ve got just the carrot: Let Scalia be the new pope. Same arguments, different letterhead.

  • Carstonio

     Heh. No way in hell. He’s already dedicated to crumbling the wall between church and state. As Pope he might very well use the Church’s resources to destroy the wall entirely.

  • P J Evans

     He could try. But being the pope doesn’t get you that much leverage in US politics. He probably has more real power as a Justice.

  • Carstonio

     True, but it would still make for a good political thriller. John Paul II is sometimes credited with using his popularity and influence to help to topple communism in Europe. Imagine a Pope using the Church apparatus to topple specific regimes in countries with large Catholic populations.

  • Tricksterson

    Whoever the new Pope is I hope they name themselves Fluffypants I

  • SkyknightXi

    At the very least, the new Pope would do well to look at Byzantium’s example and realize the decree of priestly celibacy and chastity is Not Necessary. Likelihood of this will, I think, go up if he chooses the papal name of Agapetus IV. (And why isn’t Agapetus listed on Paddy Power’s papal name betting form?!)

    I don’t know whether or not this will do much of anything about the molestation frequency. You’d think the cardinals would realize succoring molesters is essentially desecration of God’s name (I think they justify it to themselves with trying to keep the Church calm?)–to use the Hebrew phrase, Khillul ha-Shem. Why haven’t they?!

  • P J Evans

    The reason they keep giving for the rule on celibacy is ‘Jesus wasn’t married’. Which, maybe, but married/cohabiting clergy didn’t bother them until the middle ages. And even after – popes with illegitimate children. (Take that reasoning farther, and the logical result should be all priests being unmarried bearded Jewish construction workers.)

  • SkyknightXi

     And yet, Simeon Peter is supposed to be the prototype. Wasn’t HE married? (Even if we barely hear anything about his wife, like whether she accompanied him during his journeys with Jesus.)

  • http://vovinyl.blogspot.com/ FangsFirst

    There has been nothing more confusing to me than trying to sort out the articles and opinions that have appeared in the wake of this. A friend linked to this article at the NYT, and upon reading it, the site suggested this one to me.

    The latter seems to suggest “Oh, he had problems…” and never brings up the most commonly reference and immediate ones–his failures re: sexual abuse in the RCC, and his LGBT-hating disgustingness.

    On NPR I heard–in the brief moments before, honestly, I stick in a CD and enjoy my time driving to work instead–someone talking about the things he actually did re: sexual abuse.

    I cruised over to Wikipedia, which usually has a pretty strong hold on things like this staying in articles, but it’s all…praise.

    In the end I thought, “Okay, so these praised items, they are probably smoke and mirrors, but I’m sure they aren’t fabricated–so where the hell is the reality here? And where are the things I know I’ve read before that are thoroughly damning?”

    Those two NYT articles seemed to highlight it–the first didn’t even say, “He did some stuff that was all for show and did nothing actually meaningful” (to be fair, it wasn’t the central point), and the other pretended he only did good things with a few “slip ups”.

    I’ve never seen so effectively partitioned a legacy. Which I tend to appreciate very little because it makes understanding that legacy and reflecting the sum failure of it to those in denial difficult. 

    Don’t get me wrong: I think the evidence leans unquestionably toward wrongheadedness that meets evil. But the sheer inability to find a collation of good and bad (or bad and “pretending to be good” or whatever) is surprising to me.
    And if I’m misunderstood here at all: I had a really unpleasant conversation with the only person I ever cared about (the strain of everything else meant I was very reluctant to do this) after attending my second Mass and listening to a priest whinge and complain about the Newsweek cover that said “Being Pope Means Never Having to Say Sorry”, because it was all “How dare they attack our spiritual leader” and no acknowledgment whatsoever of WHAT they were saying he could (and was) getting away with being unapologetic about. I was pretty incensed at the bullshit persecution complex.