Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic church on Monday February 10, 2013 as he announced his intention to carry out the first papal resignation since Celestine V in 1294, prompting shock from even his closest friends and from critics of his eight years pontificate. His words were:
“I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonisations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. 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. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both 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 fullfil the ministry entrusted to me”
Benedict said he had taken the decision to resign “with full freedom” and great awareness of the “seriousness of this act”. A Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, insisted the pope had “no current illness that has influenced his decision”. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said he had made up his mind nearly a year ago after trips to Mexico and Cuba in March left him tired. His 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, told reporters: “Age is weighing on him. My brother would like more rest at this age.” Once he stands down, Benedict will be taken to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat near Rome, and will subsequently live in a cloistered monastery. In his statement he said he wanted to “devotedly serve the holy church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer”.
Unlike some previous occasions, there are no obvious frontrunners, but Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, are thought to be among the most plausible candidates. Benedict will not himself vote in the conclave. But his conservative theological influence is expected to make itself felt through the decisions of those cardinals, a large number of whom were picked by the outgoing pontiff. While the next pope may come from a different continent and be of a different ethnicity, he will not come from a very different place intellectually or theologically. The thoroughness of the process that John Paul II initiated at the higher levels of the church, coming close at times to a purge, will take years to be reversed. This leaves the Catholic Church ill equipped to cope with the situation the liberal cardinal Carlo Maria Martini bleakly described in a last interview before his death last year.
“The church is tired in Europe and America. Our culture has aged, our churches are large, our religious houses are empty, and the bureaucracy of the church climbs higher, our rituals and our clothes are pompous.” The church, Martini added, “must recognise her mistakes and must follow a path of radical change, starting with the pope and the bishops”, and he concluded “the church has been left behind for 200 years”.
Whoever is named the next pope by a conclave next month will inherit a church struggling with many of the same controversies that blighted Benedict’s papacy, from clerical sex abuse to fears over inadequate money laundering controls. The abuse scandals dominated his nearly eight years as leader of the world’s Catholics. Before his accession, there had been scandals in the US and Ireland. But in 2010, evidence of clerical sexual abuse was made public in a succession of countries in continental Europe, notably Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany.
Insufficient vigour in the pursuit of his aims was a charge also levelled at Benedict after he became pope. The charismatic Pope John Paul II was not the sort of man to occupy his time with the reorganisation of a bureaucracy, and by the end of his 26-year pontificate, the curia was sorely in need of modernisation. Twice Pope Benedict tried to merge departments and twice he failed. The creation of the new department for re-evangelisation meant that the Vatican bureaucracy is actually larger and more complex at the end of his tenure than it was at the start.
His pontificate remains marked also by some historical gaffes. In 2006, he outraged Muslims when, in a scholarly lecture at his old university in Regensburg, he used a quotation to the effect that the contributions made by Muhammad were “only evil and inhuman”. Pope Benedict offended, in other occasion, indigenous Latin Americans by claiming that the colonisation of their continent had not involved “the imposition of a foreign culture”. And he angered Jews by allowing wider use of the old Tridentine liturgy, which includes a Good Friday plea that they be “delivered from their darkness”. In 2009, another raging controversy erupted when he lifted the excommunication of four of the society’s bishops. One was a Holocaust-denying Briton, Richard Williamson. The Vatican said Pope Benedict had been unaware of Williamson’s views when he acted. But its disclaimer only raised the question of why that should have been so, particularly given the vulnerability in this area of a pope who, as a boy, had belonged to the Hitler Youth. Yet another row blew up in 2009 when Pope Benedict argued that the distribution of condoms in Africa, far from alleviating the problem of HIV, was actually making it worse. His claim brought widespread international condemnation, not only from campaigners but also from governments and international bodies.
But beyond all these justified critics something unexpectedly new emerges in Benedict XVI’s resignation. It is the contrast between the historic permanence of the office and the fragility of this human decision, partly because it is unprecedented in recent centuries, and partly because it is in such contrast to his predecessor’s determination to continue, in spite of growing infirmities, to the very end. Italian film maker Nanni Moretti, in his 2011 comedy-drama film “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope) narrates this paradoxical fragility incarnated in an imaginary newly-elected pope victim of a panic attack and aphasia who fails to appear on the balcony. The Pope’s uncertainty, fear and anxiety make necessary the intervention of a Psychiatrist. In our times, this is Moretti’s message, even God’s representative on earth, the Pope, and with him all kind of authority goes, soon or later, into crisis. But that is not bad news. On the contrary it may represent an opportunity for rethinking and remodelling the profile and meaning of what religious authority is and should be. Moretti’s visionary description and Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation teach, that no religious authority, Adventism included, can escape what H. Arendt called “the human condition” of fragility and uncertainty. We all should resist the temptation to sublimate and cover this inescapable human fragility of any authority by hardening or embittering it.
Benedict’s XVI resignation teaches a second important lesson. No religious community and no religious authority is above its own historical period. Those who fight against modernity or post-modernity are themselves very modern and very post-modern. Nobody is just suspended in the air in a kind of limbo, in a culturally neutral dimension. The Adventist church is a very typical modern church even in its more conservative initiatives and strategies as much as it has become post-modern, in some geographical regions, without any GC plenary vote. Cultural belonging, for the most, is not a matter of choice but rather of acceptance, reflexion and balancing. Benedict XVI’s radical Crusade against cultural Relativism ends with a vey relativistic act, his own resignation. The Pope’s noble, generous, human and courageous decision incarnates a positive and beneficial form of relativism. This fact proves that relativism is not all wrong and that the Pontiff and the Catholic Church could have benefited from it more abundantly.
Is this resignation, with its human, historical and religious favourable implications, enough to guarantee a future positive change in the Catholic Church? Unfortunately not. On the contrary it could open a season of radical hardening of the authority and of the institutions. But that is a different story.
Hans Gutierrez, “Villa Aurora”