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.