A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


First thoughts on the stunning news

It could very well be that Pope Benedict's greatest contribution to Catholic ecclesiology will be that he resigned the papal office. Everyone has known that it is possible for a pope to resign; the Code of Canon Law mentions it. But part of the very modern "mystique" of the papacy has been that it stands above and apart from all other offices in the Church, that by it the pope is so closely associated with Christ that for a pope to resign might almost feel like a betrayal of Christ. As Pope John Paul II was fading awaylike a melting snowman, a friend described the sight, one even heard people say that for him to resign would be like asking Christ to come down from the cross. John Paul himself is supposed to have said, with regard to a possible resignation, "To whom would I submit my resignation?" My answer was: "To the Church"...By this act, his frank admission that to carry out the Petrine ministry certain conditions of bodily and mental health are required, Benedict helps bring the papacy back within the Church, down from what Hans Urs von Balthasar called pyramid-like isolation. It also suggests the thought that if a pope can resign for health reasons, he might resign for other reasons also, as, for example, because he agrees with something Newman said in 1870: "It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, does cruel things without meaning it." (This reminds me of the jibe about two things that happen when a man is made a bishop: Hell never have a bad meal again, and hell never hear the truth again.) In other words, even though no term-limits may be assigned to the papal office, a pope can have his own term-limits in mind, and say to himself, and to the Church, "Basta!" If papal resignations were to become something normal (that is, not occurring only every six hundred years or so...), then there might be less reluctance to elect someone younger and still energetic without the fear that he will wear out his welcome.

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.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Please, no new Pope from Latin America, Africa or the Phillipines where the ministry by laity, especially women, will be vastly set back. We do not need a 'ceremonial pope' but one who walks among the people and admonishes his fellow bishops to care for the poor, the young and the forsaken. Time for a bad meal or two, a real concern for the gigantic dearth of ordained priests and deacons (including women) to serve local communities, and most importantly, time for Vatican III as an ongoing council activity meeting in various places in the world to emphasize collegiality over curial action.

I think it's just great when people considered elderly by our culture do things with such a huge impact. You never know what you're destined to do in this life until its really all over.

Why Celestine V resigned, and why he was canonized:But this blessed man, wonderfully innocent and without experience in matters relating to the governance of the universal Churchsince from his tender years into old age he had lived far from the world and had not applied his heart to worldly but to divine thingshe prudently turned the eye of his inner consideration upon himself, and he gave up the honor and the burden of the papacy, freely and totally, lest, for the reasons just stated, by his governance some danger might come upon the universal Church and so that he could turn away from Marthas bustling concerns and could with Mary devote himself to contemplation at the feet of Jesus.Clement V, Qui facit magna; Bulla canonizationis: Acta Sanctorum, Maii tomus quartus (Paris, 1866), 434B.

This is very thoughtful. I hoe Pope Benedict does establish a trend towards resignation when that time comes.

I notice that the announcement was made after the latest Peter's Pence collection occurred. Does Benedict get to keep all that money for himself? He may need the money for his defense if Los Angeles Archbishop Gomez should become the next Pope. If i remember correctly, Ignazio Silone claims that Celestine V was protected by bandits in the Abruzzi, at least for a time, against Boniface VIII.

I'm in full agreement with JK's statement that the pope, when stepping down, submits his resignation to the Church. Far preferable to G. Weigel's notion that this is not a resignation, but an abdication.Benedict's move seems to me a very prudent one. The ability of modern medicine to keep people alive, almost regardless of physical or mental state, long after their natural terms would normally have ended, makes necessary a decision like this, and will make easier dealing with such thorny questions in the future. For secular comparisons, think of the illnesses of George III of England, mental and otherwise; though they were evident already by the 1780s, it was not until 1810 that the Regency was set up to handle the burdens of kingship. Or think of Woodrow Wilson in our own country, whose illness was well hidden from the press, partly through the efforts of Mrs. Wilson (I'm not an American historian either, but I think that's more or less right). Perhaps indeed we will move towards a "normal retirement age" for popes as we have for bishops and so much of the rest of the world. But not all of it; if you want to give the Holy Spirit a really difficult job to do, consider whether she might establish a retirement age for tenured professors in the US.

Please-a pope that has the discernment to recognize that the Neo- Cathechumenate is not what it professes to be ;part of the New Evangelization but is actually a parallel church embedded in the Church that inverts the message and work of the universal Church.

Nicholas Clifford: Your last paragraph is right on target! A good way of thinking it: an elected pope has tenure! You can make all the changes you want in structures--as, for example, eliminating a mandatory retirement-age for professors--, but if you want the system (e.g., a university, or tenure) to work, you need people who will act intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly. Not only does no structural change guarantee such authenticity, neither does it substitute for it. We had a professor at Catholic University who was hired after Yale let him go at the age of 65. He taught at CUA for 25 years, on one-year contracts, but when, after student-complaints, the University did not give him, now 90 years old, another year's contract, he sued it for age-ism!

Having been reared in Louisiana politics, I can't help wondering what it will be like for the next pope to have his predecessor still around. If the Curia is always awash in jockeying, how will these new circumstances affect the "strivers" who are always with us? The next pope will have to be both holy and politically adroit.

I imagine that the retired Pope will go off somewhere where he won't be heard from again until he dies. And there are many good examples of how this sort of thing has been handled at the level of dioceses.You'll be able to guess how long ago this conversation took place: I remember talking to David Tracy about the possibility of a pope's resigning. His quip was: "Imagine what a fee he could get for appearing on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson!"

Speaking of TV, I'm remembering a scene on the West Wing. President Bartlet resigns (temporarily in his case) because his daughter has been kidnapped and his motivations have become compromised. One of his staffers calls it something like "An extraordinary act of statesmanship, and a fairly normal act of fatherhood." That seems applicable here, mutatis mutandis.

I would second Joe Komonchak and other commentators that Benedict's resignation helps refine the notion of the papacy and, thanks be to God, distinguishes the person from the office. I would also opine that he really did this for the good of the church as much as anything. While many theologians disagree with him and some of his policies on various issues, his commitment to do the best he could for God's church seems unassailable. And the workload, especially in the footsteps of J2P2 is enormous. Pius X did not have a 24 hour news cycle, vatileaks, the Web, instantaneous communications, and did not have to tweet. The public face of the church is a role one can play only if one has full strength and vigor these days. Given the chaos of the last of J2P2's years, one can imagine Ratzinger wanting to spare the church that. But if he does, as the report of Lombardi's press conference has it, plan to stay in a former cloister in the Vatican, he won't be far away.

Thank God! Perhaps Pope Benedict resigned because he witnessed first hand the damage done by Pope John Paul's long, long decline.

According to Giovanni Maria Vian, in an editorial appearing in tomorrow's "L'Osservatore Romano." the Pope came to his decision after his trip to Mexico and Cuba last March.This may cast some light on the unexpected Consistory of last November when six new cardinals were installed.

I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire the Cardinals who elect the next Pope to choose a man like Pope John XXIII who saw his role as that of a pastor and who never forgot that Jesus declared that the second most important commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Church does not need an autocrat who turns inquisitors loose on nuns while continuing to harbor miscreants like Bernard Law in the Vatican.

I hope Benedict gets a few more peaceful years to do some writing, play some Mozart, and drink some beer.

A friend just asked me if there is any connection between the pope's resignation and the HBO documentary, "Mea Maxima Culpa."

How will Benedict's legacy be affected if he leaves office without firing (or asking for the resignation of) Bishop Finn?

What a wonderful post.I think the issue of retirement is closely linked to the question of what the papacy is for, and the more we can think about it in terms that serve the church rather than "deify" the holder of this important office (which exists for the good of the church), the better. There is a cult of the papacy that, if indulged too much as that of the great man rather than as the servant of the church, is not good for the whole. Along these lines I've had some disquiet over the extraordinary number of canonization proceedings for popes that have taken place in recent years. It seems there is a rush to canonize all the popes of the 20th century (almost), which has some sort of a psychological basis rather than a prudent religious exercise.

I think this is a gesture rooted in generosity and I am deeply grateful. I think the conclave will be deadlocked for a while. I hope Benedict gets his cat back.

A response? The spark of eternal youth? The fires on the altars of Elijah?

To Jeanne Follman: I entirely agree. The time to pray, read, study, write, play Mozart (I heard him once and he played quite well that time) is a gift.I also think his resignation is a challenge to all of us to think more about the papacy. He also has opened the door for his successors to consider resignation a "live option." We will need some time to plumb the depths of this graceful act and decision.

A Black Swan event noted by the three characteristics. 1. a surprise2.has major effect3 rationalized by hindsight. Monday morning QB.

Resignation today. Term limits tomorrow?Just enquiring.

It strikes me that the Pope has elected for white martyrdom, as many did in the Middle Ages; he will, for all intents and purposes, be out of the world, to live a life of silence and prayer. One wonders if this was in his mind when he recently addressed some elders and talked about allowing themselves to be cared for and of the importance of their prayers in illness and infirmity.Like Molly, I hope there will be a cat. They were allowed in the Ancrene Wisse: Ye, mine leove sustren, bute yef neod ow drive ant ower meistre hit reade, neschulen habbe na beast bute cat ane.

Canon Law does not provide any procedure for retiring a pope who becomes permanently mentally/physically totally disabled, which, apparently would be the Vatican's worst nightmare. I wonder if Benedict will do something about that before the end of the month.

I think that Benedict XVI has offered a positive witness to the Church and, through his action, a gift to the office of Pope. I second everything Rita said.His resignation (and I think we should use the term "resignation" and not, pace Weigel, who I often like, the term "abdication") was gracious and clearly prayerfully considered.As for the other threads about his successor, each does put their own particular emphasis on one aspect of the Church's mission or the other. This pope seemed interested in liturgy, reconciliation with different groups such as SSPX and the Anglicans. The next may emphasize different kinds of priorities such as collegiality practiced differently or perhaps governance issues relative to transparency, or maybe transforming the Church in other subtle ways in terms of its public face to the world. In some ways, the Vatican has been defensive and feeling that it is under siege with secularism, etc. Benedict XVI was a bit more Biblical in his approach but we did not see that as much as we could have. I would like to see a bit more grounding of tradition in the biblical tradition and less of grounding it in Church Fathers.

why such a many older people here in the States and specially in other places have to work...past 85....lack of strength wont do for many....if he wants to go, good for him...

Catholic intellectuals, and especially those who read Commonweal, tend to an unwarranted kindness -- even those who are genuinely glad to see Benedict go, as I am sure many of us are. Benedict and his immediate predecessor did, I think, more harm to the church than anyone since Pius X. Both of them betrayed the Council and by doing so cast the community into confusion and what may be permanent conflict and thereby missed a great grace and opportunity. Both of them, by their appointments, ensured the mediocracy of the episcopate for which we will pay for a generation or two. Neither one of them did much to bring the three or more wings of the church into decent and respectful conversation. Both of them conducted a holy war on theologians in order to bring them into line with a legally blind magisterium. Both of them were (are) misogynists. Both of them seemed to think that priests must abstain from sexual love if their ministry is to support the church's mission (both of them needed wives, I suspect). Both of them would have ignored, and in some cases did in fact ignore, the crimes committed against children (in the case of Benedict, some slight modification occurred when Catholic parents began to cry to heaven and the civil law for justice). Both of them firmly believed in the 1500 year delusion of Roman bishops that they sit on the chair of Peter and tried to act accordingly. Yes, it is true that in many other ways they were outstanding men, priests and theologians but in total they were not good popes. In several ways they visited disaster upon a church which looked for genuine and courageous leadership. I am not sorry to see them gone and pray for the next bishop as I did for them.

Some may have cited this elsewhere, but Philippa Hitchen at Vatican Radio had a good interview with Rowan Williams, who revealed something of the conversations he and B16 had shared about the burdens of leadership, and he also made a point that Father K and others have here:

Q: The resignation is being seen as a modernising step for the papacy: do you see it as furthering the call by Johh Paul II in Ut Unum Sint to rethink the papacy in the service of unity for all Christians?A: Thats a really interesting question because it does seem to me that an act like this does something to, as you might put it, demystify the papacy, the pope is not like a sort of God King who goes on to the very end. The ministry of service that the Bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service and its therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand. So yes, Id call it demystifying and in that sense reminding us that the position of the bishop of Rome, the primitive position of the bishop of Rome as the servant of the unity of the Church, of the bishop who convenes, mediates between, manages the fellowship of the bishops, that slightly more functional, slightly less theologically top heavy picture, that may be one of the things that emerges from this

Andrew Sullivan also points to St. Gregory the Great's writings, which have been cited by Benedict:

No one could doubt that this Holy Father has meditated profoundly, and I expect repeatedly, on The Pastoral Rule of St. Gregory the Greatthat sixth-century handbook for those who hold the highest spiritual authority, what Benedict and others have called the ars artium (the art of arts). Much of the book is a warning against the wrong reasons for grasping or holding on to power, followed by an outline of the virtues needed to exercise leadership well. In the first book of The Pastoral Rule we find this line, which I believe has quietly echoed for some weeks in the Holy Fathers thoughts: He must be a man whose aims are not thwarted by the frailty of his body. The office of Peter is not a spiritual thing which discounts human nature. That sacred ministry resides with a person, but that person must have the nature to exercise its rigors.

Here is a reaction (in French) from within the traditionalist camp, written by a fine scholar, regretting the consequences others and I believe Benedict's resignation may have on the theory and practice of the papacy. He also very much regrets that the pontificate of Benedict XVI did not implement the views of Joseph Ratzinger!:

Wonder what would happen if the conclave elects--Joseph Ratzinger?

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment