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A year ago today

 A year ago today, I came out into our living room where my brother had the morning news on. “The Pope has just resigned,” he told me. I was as disbelieving as everyone else was, I suspect, on hearing the news. I guess we all had a right to be, given that it was the first time in six or seven hundred years.

It’s worth taking note of the anniversary, particularly if we wish to celebrate the changes that Pope Francis has brought to the Church and those that one can hope are still to come. It was Pope Benedict and this self-denying act of his that made Pope Francis possible. How rare it is that a person, in any organization, with such power in his hands should lay it down voluntarily and with no strings attached, with no attempt made to choose or to determine his successor, with no effort, it seems, to influence that successor’s policies and decisions.

A high school teacher once told us, “There’s nothing deader than a dead pope,” and I can remember how our Scripture professor Fr. Myles Bourke's being annoyed that many people thought it necessary, in order to welcome John XXIII, to denigrate Pius XII, author of Divino afflante Spiritu, the liberating encyclical on the study of the Bible. Perhaps we need to remember St. Paul’s celebration of charisms in the Church and to apply it also to the papacy: There are varieties of gifts in the Church, and among popes. No pope receives all of them, and we can be grateful for the gifts any pope receives, whether a Benedict or a Francis. Grateful for the latter, we must be grateful for the former.

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I am sorry -- I don't see why it was a self- denying act.  by his own accounts, he couldn't physically do the job any more. It was brave. It was ruthlessly honest. But  I don't see self-denying.

I don't think everyone has a will to power in the sense that no one would willingly give up the papacy.

Cathleen - don't you think, though, that during the time of the conclave that selected him, he did have the will to power, else he would have let it be known that he had no interest in the office?

Taking him at his word, he wasn't able (or desirous) of all it takes to be a Pope. Whether that was physical, mental, emotinal, and/or spiritual, he discerned (and it would be intersting who wth) that it was his time to step down... and that somehow the Spirit would provide for the Church... wise and faith-ful and perhaps increasingly self-evident to him and his intimates.

I only wish others bishops and clerics could retire at more or less the expected agein our societyof 65-70 when they are spent of the duties of office.  For many - the majority?- "75" in this era is a bit far to stay sharp and open and capable of office in this era even as they are capable of much good and contriution on many levels.

it is not age-ism to encourage greater flexibility with retirement as the Pope demonstrated at his much more advanced age.

I think he could have seen taking the job as a self-denying act. Letting it go could have been a welcome blessing.

 

One day he was pope. Then he voluntarily resigned and was no longer pope. How is this not self-denying?

It presupposes that he wanted to be pope. 

One day Richard Nixon was president.  The next day he resigned and was no longer president.  How is this not self-denying?

One slightly pedantic but important note: so much of the coverage today is marking Benedict's resignation. He actually didn't resign until Feb. 28; he just announced his intention to resign on Feb. 11. That's important in that it allowed for a certain process to start, something of a transition, a shock absorber.

Then again, did he really resign? Or did he abdicate? Has that ever been decided?!

One day Richard Nixon was president.  The next day he resigned and was no longer president.  How is this not self-denying?

Because, if he hadn't resigned, they would have impeached him.

Agree - but it appears that it is all subjective.....from Nixon's personal perspective, he could say it was self-denial - in one sense, yes; in another sense, no.  As you say, one difference between Benedict and the Nixon example is that Nixon would have been impeached.  And, yet, the very word - self-denial- can not be easily judged, applied, etc.  Even with the threat of impeachment, one could say that Nixon exhibited self-denial - he put the good of the country over personal ambition.

Same with Benedict - it depends a lot upon your perspective, etc. 

Prof. Kaveny posits that he may or may not have wanted to be pope - and that changes whether you would describe his action has self-denial or something other.  But, this is subjective and how will we ever know?  And would suggest that in most human actions/decisions, there are complex motivations and reasons - so, some self-denial; some based upon objective analysis; some based upon intuition; advice, etc.

"Did he resign or did he abdicate?"

I think he retired.

In the dictionary one day we'll read one line about each pope.

"Pope John Paul I (1978-1978): Died 33 days after becoming pope.

Pope John Paul ii (1978-2005): Prayed for peace with people from other religions.

Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013): Resigned from office."

I read somewhere that last year he was sick, but ended up recovering. I wonder if he ever regrets having resigned.

Resigned or abdicated? Better than deposed.

Abdicate connotes for me a monarch leaving his/her throne usually under pressure.

It seems to me that he resigned because he was resigned to the fact that he had no power and/or physical stamina to deal with the issues that were in the Vatican and world-wide Church.

 

"Even with the threat of impeachment, one could say that Nixon exhibited self-denial - he put the good of the country over personal ambition."  

One could say that, but it wouldn't be accurate.  Nixon was facing almost certain impeachment, but held out until it was absolutely certain that he didnt have the votes.  And if he had been removed, he would have lost his federal benefits and would have most likely been indicted criminally.  While it was politically possible for Ford to pardon him after resignation, that almost certainly wouldn't have happened if he had held out til the bitter end.

 I defy anyone to point to any instance in Nixon's long public  life in which he ever put "the good of the country"  over satisfying his personal whims and vendettas, much less over his spectacular "personal ambition."   While one may analyze Benedict's decision to step down in a number of ways, there is no legitimate comparison to Nixon's criminal, narcissistic hubris.

David - agree but you are speaking as ah historian - just trying to indicate that the term is very subjective.  But, yes, the Nixon analogy limps

Even with the threat of impeachment, one could say that Nixon exhibited self-denial - he put the good of the country over personal ambition.

Right, one could say that, but nobody sane would believe it. Nixon was saving face. In any case, Benedict was not trying to outrun humiliation. On the contrary: whether or not what he did should be counted as an act of self-denial, it was certainly an act of humility. 

Compare what Benedict did versus John Paul II's hanging on and on and on.

Call it self-denying or whatever you want.  It was/is the right and proper thing to do, in all times and in all places.  Would that his predecessor had had the wisdom to retire/resign/abdicate/drift away gracefully.

Term limits, either by numbers or terms or by age, exist for very good reasons.

"Grateful for the latter, we must be grateful for the former."

We don't say this about every Catholic who dies. Therefore it is clericalism to do so for a pope. Everyone is judged according to his works. If we are to look at what we see. then in many ways he was a flawed pope as well as curial official. He avoide the turmoil of growth and change for the security of empire and repression. It was not his health that was in danger. It was the health of the Catholic world that was going down hill.

 

What Benedict did was risky.  There is no guarantee that a man of Francis' qualities would be Benedict's successor.  I don't say this to criticize Benedict's decision.  But it took guts and trust.  

I'd think it would be very difficult to untangle the threads when asking oneself, "Would I be doing this for my own good or the good of the church?  Do I hesitate in doing this because of what I want or because of what the church needs?"

 

Michael Sean Winters has a generous reflection at "Distinctly Catholic:"

http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/pope-emeritus-benedict

I am of the opinion that what Pope Benedict did was a graceful and full of grace thing, which might become more common as time goes on.  He had seen the end of the John Paul II papacy which seemed to go on and on and become more and more reactionay, and had the grace to avoid a repeat.  I truly believe that he understood that an increasingly declining pope in this era would do more damage than good and he did what his heart and his head told him was the right thing.  As to whether it was self-denying, I can't say.  But I think it was right.

People are complex.  We often have more than one motive for a decision, and some can be good while some are bad.  

Graham Greene, an expert on the human heart, believed that the “greatest saints have been men with more than a normal capacity for evil.”

m.mentalfloss.com/article.php?id=55033

I think it's possible he stepped down for reasons other than self denial .... he had a boatload of sex abuse scandals on his watch and he may have seen some hot water in his future.

Last summer there were reports that Benedict had told a visitor that he retired because he had a "mystical experience" over an extended period of time that convinced him that God wanted him to resign.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/21/us-pope-benedict-idUSBRE97K0F920130821

The reports also noted that when Benedict saw how Francis was leading the Church, Benedict knew that he had made the right decision. If nothing else, as Mathhew Boudway said, the resignation "was certainly an act of humility."  

 

 

This may be a reflection of where I am in life, but I've reached the stage where I've seen a number of my contemporaries 'deal with' parents whose health declines and declines and declines, and then plateaus over a very long period of time without ever quite dying.  These elderly parents are not capable of caring for themselves independently, much less running a worldwide church.  It is no disrespect to note that they are quite a burden on their children, or the subset of children (often enough, one child) who does the bulk of the care.  The expenses involved in elder care are also extremely stressful.

Except for the stress of the expenses part, John Paul's decline more or less matches this pattern.  I don't know if this experience is the "new normal" for the last quarter of our lives.  I'm sure that advances in healthcare make it possible.  I don't know if these considerations played a part in Benedict's decision-making - I'm not sure what his health is.  I do think this needs to be one of the elements to be considered, though.  

 

It might be best to assume that Pope Benedict actually did resign because he thought he didn't have  the physical or mental strength needed to do the job as it should be done. He certainly had a chance to observe at close hand what happened to John Paul II when he was no longer  in a position to make decisions. Better to leave the problem to heaven. Not a bad idea. And quite the decent thing to do. 

I would, sadly, agree with those who have challenged the connection between (1) God give popes different gifts (something I would of course agree with) and (2) we should be grateful for any pope we are given. I don't know that we MUST be grateful for Benedict if we are grateful for Francis. It's possible I think to be grateful for the God-given gifts of anyone who is given this office, without necessarily -- in sum, and on balance -- being grateful for that individual's ministry as a whole.

Of course I can't disagree with Myles Bourke in resenting those who would disparage Pius XII on the grounds of him not being John XXIII. But I can't think of what would be the equivalent in Benedict's pontificate of what Pius XII did in laying the foundation for reform movements that would bear fruit later on.

In the area of liturgy it seems to me that Benedict has sown confusion through Summorum pontificum and deepened divisions through encouraging the reform of the reform, imposed dubious translation principles for liturgical texts, undercut the proper role of episcopal conferences in liturgical regulation, and through cultivating the Society of St. Pius X, has caused scandal and more confusion without healing or unity resulting. The announcement of the Anglican ordinariate without even informing our dialogue partners in the Anglican communion in advance, the ecumenical winter deepened by Liturgiam authenticam and Dominus Iesus -- none of this is a happy legacy either. The way in which the episcopate has been stacked with appointees who are culture warriors, rather than caring pastors lies at his door too, directly or indirectly, as I think during John Paul II's waning years, Cardinal Ratzinger had great influence in shaping the image of a church under constant threat from the secular world. I could go on about curial appointments too, but it's not necessary. You get the picture.

I would be interested in what the theologians and historians here regard as Benedict's positive legacy that we should hope will endure and produce more fruit as history moves on. There's a loose sort of "he's a theologian pope" nod that everybody makes to Benedict, but what is really at stake here? What is the distinctive content of Benedict's contribution? What did he say/do theologically that really made a difference, that forms the backbone of a positive legacy for the Church? That's a real question I have.

 

Or is it perhaps as Claire says, the most significant thing he did was resign the papacy!

Rita: 

You wrote:  "I would, sadly, agree with those who have challenged the connection between (1) God give popes different gifts (something I would of course agree with) and (2) we should be grateful for any pope we are given."

May I say that I also would challenge such a connection, but hasten to add that I made no such connection. This is what I wrote: "No pope receives all of them, and we can be grateful for the gifts any pope receives, whether a Benedict or a Francis."  There are more than a few popes for whom I myself am not at all grateful. In the modern era, Pius IX would top my list.

You also wrote: "Or is it perhaps as Claire says, the most significant thing he did was resign the papacy!" I said something like this the day Pope Benedict announced his intention to resign. That he resigned the papacy will rightly be prominent in the first paragraph, even the first sentence, of his obituary.

All we have is reasoned speculation about the reasons Benedict XVI resigned. The most important thing is that he did so and I don't believe the reason was merely his lack of physical strength or will to govern the RCC. Clearly, he did not bring together the profound divisions that have plagued the Church in his papacy, nor the one that carried over from JP II. In many ways, the papacy of both JP II and Benedict XVI reflected an exaggerated focus on obedience to what Pope Francis called small-minded rules.

Clearly, many Catholics who have been disenfrancized by the Church especially the young who have become spiritual but not religious want a more welcoming Church, one that listens, learns and teaches. They don't want a distant heirarchy and a repeat of the same narrative. They want a better understandable answer to many of today's social and sexual ethical issues. This does not mean that a pope should cow to any form personal and social relativism or the latest poll. It does mean that a better convincing message is needed.

While Pope Francis's focus is on loving and serving the poor, it will be anyone's guess if any teaching will be responsibly reformed in his papacy, or if Mass attendance and reception increases.

I believed Benedict XVI knew that a different pope might be the best thing for the Church and after much reflection, he decided to resign. I believe that he is at peace with his decison and most Catholics are grateful for his unselfish, loving and courageous act.

 

 

 

Indeed.  https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/first-thoughts-stunning-news

Opening sentence of that post one year ago:

"It could very well be that Pope Benedict's greatest contribution to Catholic ecclesiology will be that he resigned the papal office." 

Well said, Michael...

What continues to amaze me is that this man who has such a profound sense of history and the role of the papacy, had the faith to effectively say, "Let the Spirit guide us... I don't need to be 'the one.'" So, I ultimately place his abdication/resignation as a tremendous act of faith... and would that many bishops would do likewise before mandatory retirement age!

 

Joe, I quite agree about Pius IX. 

As for what will go down in history, I thought Claire got that idea from you!

 

Rita: also from my father, actually.

Really like what Michael Barberi said.  Here is another opinion that sheds some more light on the timeline of the decision and reasons that may have impacted it:

http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=20454

Key  section:

"The former Secretary of State said that the Pope’s decision to resign was prompted “at least in part” by the report given to him by a commission of three cardinals investigating the “Vatileaks” scandal. The commission made its report to the Pontiff in July 2012. Cardinal Bertone said that he did not think the actual content of the commission’s report was critically important, however— thereby downplaying rumors that the secret contained some shocking information that prompted the Pontiff to resign.

Cardinal Bertone also acknowledged that Pope Benedict had been hurt by the Vatileaks scandal and the turmoil within the Vatican that the leaked documents disclosed. “I regret not being able to curb the scandal,” Cardinal Bertone said."

This being said, it doesn't take away from both Fr. K and Rita's comment that *resigning* may be his lasting legacy to the church.

positive legacy: pope Benedict sent Fr Maciel into forced retirement. He sent a letter to the Catholics of Ireland in which he wrote the following paragraph addressed to his brother bishops:

Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives.

 He has not done enough to deal with the sex abuse scandal, but he did more than his predecessor and, unfortunately, possibly more than his successor will. I think that he is the one through whom the church institution accepted the idea that a priest who has committed sex abuse must be sanctioned. Now it seems straightforward (and we want to go beyond that, of course), but I have the impression that, among the people in power inside the church, he was the one who made that happen.

Bravo to Michael Barberi with whom I agree until his last paragraph.  Then I am more sympathtic to Bill deHaas.  We do not know the reasons why Benedict resigned, but I suspect that he was pressured to do so in the wake of the scadals that plagued his papacy.  This is a man who sought nothing more than to be Pope, so much so that he orchestrated his own election. Evident in the fact that the first clear choice of the cardinal electors, Jorge Bergolio, stepped aside to let him have the office.  This is the Benedict, who three days prior to his election, sent the Latin homily he would deliver to the cardinals electors on April 20th, one day after his election, to Fr. Reggie Foster, the top Latinist at the Gregorian, to check the Latin.  This is the Benedict who assured his election, and who later in an interview had to admit that the Holy Spirit does not select the actual individual who is elected Pope but somehow guides the process of election. At least he had the integrity to admit that much.  Such a person does not resign the papacy of his own will.  He was at the height of his papal power, effecting all the detrimental changes so well catalogued in Rita Ferrone's post @6:25 pm to bring about the Church he had wanted for so many years after Vatican II. Why would he give it up so willingly? It just does not compute.  We can only hope that historians will someday tell us what really happened to bring about the announcement of February 11, 2013 that the Pope was going to resign.

Actually I think Benedict did a really poor job with the abuse problem and there were those who believed he was involved in cover-ups like the Lawrence Murphy case.   Alex Gibney ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Gibney ...  made a documentary film about that (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mea_Maxima_Culpa:_Silence_in_the_House_of_God).  Here's what the NYT wrote of it ... http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/movies/mea-maxima-culpa-alex-gibney-do...

John Allen weighs in on some of the items being discussed here.  An interesting take, including the lack of a "funeral effect" in electing Francis as the successor.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2014/02/10/how-benedict-xvi-set-st...

 

 

 

In this CNS story, Archbishop Georg Ganswein reveals that Benedict had forewarned him that he would resign.  He also states that Francis and Benedict talk frequently on the phone.  HT Greg Kandra at the Deacon's Bench.

http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1400592.htm

 

 

Crystal, you're right, I had forgotten about the case of Fr Lawrence Murphy.

I thought that Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi were beautiful reflections that could only have been written by a holy man who was close to the Lord.

Jim P.,

The John Allen piece does not tell us anything that we do not already not know. It is a fluff piece that he had to publish on the anniversary of the announcement of Benedict's resignation.

Surely Georg Gänswein is not an objective observer of the resignation of Benedict.  He has a vested interest in protecting Benedict, so I would not take what he says at face value. One has to wonder why he wants to establish a distance between the time Benedict intimated resignation in 2012 an exactly when he decided to resign in 2013.  Sounds to much like an attemopt to control the narrative.

The bottom line is we do not know the real reason(s) why Benedict resgined and we can only hope that historians will uncover it (them) and let us know when they do.

 

 

I did not agree with every jot and tittle of Pope Benedict but I liked reading him and respect him as a wise man in the truest sense of the word. It is rare to find truly wise people, and he is, as far as I can tell, certainly one. For that reason I admire and respect him.

I have worked in environments with all manner of self important people. Here was a man who by all accounts was important and chose freely to resign giving two weeks notice!!

 

How rare it is that a person, in any organization, with such power in his hands should lay it down voluntarily and with no strings attached, with no attempt made to choose or to determine his successor, with no effort, it seems, to influence that successor’s policies and decisions.

Precisely!!

I've long thought that there are two Ratzingers, one a very gentle, even sentimental grandfatherly type of person, the other a rigid authoritarian who takes no prisoners. The grandfather wrote a great encyclical on Charity.  The authoritarian was grossly unfair to some theologians.  But he loved the Church, and so he resigned when he ran out of strength. ( As an 83 year old person I'm here to warn,,  you that extreme weakness is exactly what can happen in very old age -- at times one has to stop walking because  one simply doesn't have enough physical strength to put one foot in front of the other.) 

But Ratzinger had the strength to stand up about Marcial to JP II (who had had the guts to stand up to the whole Communist empire).  And after becoming pope Benedict banished the creep.  No, he didn't address the cover-ups, but he did take the first big step and that is always the hardest. We'll see if Francis does any better. 

Thank you, Rita. You have expressed what many feel.   I don't know why Benedict resigned, but agree with those that say that it is the best thing that he ever did as pope.  I am not objective - what I have seen as the legacy of his papacy, combined with his close collaboration with his predecdessor, is a legacy of serious damage to the church in the west. As Rita put it - In the area of liturgy ... Benedict has sown confusion ...and deepened divisions through ... the reform of the reform, ... through cultivating the Society of St. Pius X, has caused scandal and more confusion without healing or unity resulting. The...Anglican ordinariate .... none of this is a happy legacy ...  the episcopate has been stacked with appointees who are culture warriors, rather than caring pastors.... I could go on about curial appointments too, ...

One might add the supression of thinking itself through silencings and even excommunications  of theologians, priests and women religious throughout his career at the CDF and as pope.  Even Cardinal Martini dared not speak his mind until he was literally on his deathbed.

Thanks to Crystal also for pointing out the reality of his failure to truly address the sexual abuse crisis - Benedict never held a single bishop accountable, yet he did not hesitate to remove Bishop Morris of Australia for his perceived sins (supporting the reexamination of mandatory celibacy, the denial of ordination to women, and continuing to have general absolution and communal reconciliation services).  Bishops can still do what they want and snub their noses at the policies intended to protect the young - Bishop Finn and Cardinal George are both post-Dallas examples of this in the US, and there are others.

Benedict is probably a decent human being who meant no harm and who wished to do something good. But he was not suited for the job - he is an academic and that's where he should have stayed. He did a lot of harm (Rita and Crystal have referred to some of it). It was all about the head for him but what the church needs in these troubled times is heart. Francis is providing that - but will those in the trenches and in the chanceries get the message? How quickly can the damage be undone?  Is it even possible?

I hesitated to comment because I am among those who do not believe he was a good pope - but apparently it's impolite to say so on this anniversary. The old lesson not to say anything at all unless one can say something nice still sticks.  But, facing the truth is important too. This papacy did not further the "cause" of the church in the world, nor even in its own house.

 

I agree with nearly everything that has been said here, pro and con, about Pope Benedict, even when the comments seem to contradict each other. I'll even add that as an administrator he was about as inept as they come; he never had what Field Marshal Montgomery used to call "grip." OK?

BUT what I don't see getting enough attention are Benedict's efforts to restore Jesus of Nazareth to his Church after two decades of the rock star and his World Youth Day crews and groupies. A pope who wrote three volumes specifically devoted to Jesus -- regardless of what the professional theologians think about them -- is a pope who was trying to pull us back to who it's all about. He ought to get an attaboy for that.

MIchael Brendan Dougherty has a somewhat different  view of the contrast between Benedict and Francis in this piece, headlined "Pope Francis, Insult Comic"

 

http://theweek.com/article/index/256252/pope-francis-insult-comic

 

Ms Chapman: 

You wrote: "I hesitated to comment because I am among those who do not believe he was a good pope - but apparently it's impolite to say so on this anniversary. The old lesson not to say anything at all unless one can say something nice still sticks."

I find this remark very puzzling, at least if it refers to this thread. People who don't think Benedict was a good pope are hardly under-represented here, and to none of them has it been suggested that it is impolite to say so.

The more I think about our Church as a global one, the more I think we need different kinds of Popes to hold the center together.  The survey that just came out on the attitudes among Catholics in various Spanish-speaking countries really struck me  as to how extremely conservative Catholics are in some countries. There are lots of reforms I would like to see take place in the Chruch, but I think if they happen too fast or too slow, people could peel off into different sects- we would have Reform Catholics, Conservative Catholics ,etc.  

I like us all to stay together if we can, and I think having very different cycles of Popes supports that,  even if I found the Church under the last couple of conservative papacies kind of painful and not the Chruch I grew up in,  maybe it all works out for the best when taking the long view.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.