Pope Benedict XVI is resigning

Pope Benedict XVI is resigning February 11, 2013

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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  • (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.

  • Foelhe

    I don’t support cruel and unusual punishment, sir.

  • 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.)

  • What about cruel or unusual?  Cruel I’ll concede, but one can hardly call one among several million copies of the least deserving New York Times bestseller in the history of the list unusual.

  • 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.)

  • Jared Bascomb

    WRT to JP2’s homophobia vis-a-vis Pope Rat’s, could JP2’s homophobia be attributed in any part to then-Cardinal Rat’s influence as head of the Doctrine of the Faith (or whatever it’s called)? I recall most of us LGBT people rolling our eyes whenever JP2 said something homophobic but saved most of our anger for Cardinal Rat, the author of so much anti-gay hatred.

  • The Yugoslavs invented their own version of that for a while.


    “After Tito – Tito!”

  • What incensed me about JPII’s homophobia is he God damn well knew better. Did he or did he not live under the Nazis, who made no bones about what they did with “queers”, and then later the Communists, who insisted that homosexuality was anathema to the Great Socialist Worker’s Paradise? (admittedly, Eastern European nations generally started legalizing same-sex activities in the 1960s and 1970s…)

  • P J Evans

    There are a lot of politicians in the US who know it isn’t true – some of them are still in their closets *cough* Graham *cough* – but they make speeches that are explicitly homophobic.

  • syfr

    I think you should mind your own business when they mind theirs.

  • 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.

  • reynard61

    “The bishops mitre (ahem) needs no improvements except maybe a smoke machine, and a little speaker blasting Kraftwerk wherever he goes.”

    Gilgamesh Wulfenbach could probably do you one better. (Though I don’t think that his can blast Kraftwerk…yet…)

  • reynard61

    “And instead of a library of first editions listening for the squeaky wheel of the book cart for a trustee to hand him a battered Dean Koontz paperback through the bars. Fie on him.”

    Better yet, how about Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique or pretty much anything by Gloria Steinem…or would that constitute cruel and unusual punishment?

  • reynard61

    From the book preview: “On the other hand, you’ll know that America has relaxed it’s hopelessly tight asshole if we someday elect a president named Booger. If we ever get a President named Booger, Skeeter, T-Bone or Downtown President Brown, you’ll know that finally this country is a relaxed, comfortable place to live.”

    Does President Barack Hussein Obama count? (Though it must be admitted that more than a few assholes tightened to black-hole-creating proportions when he got elected — twice!)

  • reynard61

    “It occurs to me that Jed Bartlett’s Catholic…. I can live in hope, right?”

    As long as the Pope in the West Wing-iverse has also resigned I don’t see why not.

  • Carstonio

    Are you talking about Catholics in general or the bishops? Either way, I mind my own business because respecting individuals’ privacy is the right thing to do.

  • The_L1985

    I’ve learned something from that site.  Namely, that there are WAY too many Italian cardinals. And I say this as someone who is proud of her Italian heritage.

  • The_L1985

     But it’s strongly implied.

    There’s also the issue that a lot of 6th-8th graders can’t think logically yet, and some (including myself) were so sheltered at the time of Confirmation that the only other option they seemed to have WRT religion was a nasty form of fundamentalist Protestantism.  I remember feeling that there was something wrong about the form of Protestantism to which I’d been exposed (but I couldn’t yet put my finger on it), and being fairly certain that I wasn’t an atheist–which, to the sheltered kid I was at the time, meant I pretty much had to be Catholic.

    I had literally never knowingly encountered a non-Christian in my life, and didn’t realize that members of non-Christian religions actually existed in the United States.  I honestly believed that “those people” only lived in other countries, partly due to the fact that I only really learned about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism in the context of world history courses.  Otherwise, I might have made a very different decision–I was rather taken with Indian culture at the time, and had already read through the entire Ramayana at the age of 11.

    (But then, I can imagine how my father would have reacted to “Dad, I think I want to be a Hindu instead.”  That would have gone over badly.)

  • The_L1985

    So did I.  I was 18 when he died, yet I knew next to nothing about what was going on in the world–and was perversely proud of that, because “everybody knows that politicians all tell lies.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The_L1985

     Church policy on contraception didn’t exist until 1968.

  • The_L1985

    Given that he died 50 years ago, I’m sure a lot of us were.

  • SisterCoyote

     Man, is there anyone alive who doesn’t want to go back and punch their teenage selves?

    (Relatedly, my little sister, who’s eighteen, just called me this morning. “Are you at work? Okay, good. I need to talk to you. I am SO ANGRY. I just watched this documentary about corruption in Fox News – why are they so EVIL? I’m so angry! Why? Why is this happening, who actually DOES that? AAAARGH!”

    She’s an ally everywhere it counts, but has, up until apparently today, been pretty much resolutely ignoring most politics, including voting, because she was firmly planted in the “They’re all corrupt, so who cares? Now leave me alone, I’m drawing dragons,” camp. I’m gladder than I can say that she seems to be waking up from that phase.)

  • 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.

  • Eugh, punch is too mild for the jackass I was as a teenager.   I grant there were some reasons beyond my control I wound up that way at the time, but omfg there’s so much I wish I could UN-SAY from that period.

  • That has been on my mind, that he drops dead still in harness. 
    Would that be a dark kindness, to have the catharsis of a papal funeral after all? 

  • He’s beautiful.

  • syfr

    I meant that you should mind your own business when the bishops stop meddling in U.S. politics.

    I am an ex-Catholic, and since their meddling in politics affects your life, I think it’s okay for you to have an opinion on them/the pope/ etc.

  • Carstonio

    That’s an opinion we share. My point was that some Catholics might not see the distinction between voicing an opinion on who should be Pope and, say, walking into a church on Sunday and ridiculing the Eucharist. For some it’s probably a personal issue. That wouldn’t stop me from having the opinion, but it would lead me to think about tactics in voicing that opinion around Catholics. They might have a point if the Church’s governance was democratic.

  • Socialmedic

    Or the lifetime of rape due to forcing women to be economically dependent on men disguised as the institution of marriage?