Resigned to confusion

Benedict XVI's announcement Monday morning took nearly everyone by surprise, and left even the experts at sea when it came to the obvious questions: Can he do this? And what happens now?

Actually, the answer to the first question wasn't so hard: sure he can. Not, as some would have it, because he's "infallible," but because Canon Law provides for it. But since it hadn't actually happened in many centuries, the vocabulary to describe what was happening was elusive. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable sensation for experts on religion, and especially on Catholicism. When you have a pope, you are supposed to know who's in charge. When you have a comprehensive set of rules and guidelines, you are supposed to have all the answers. Surely this, too, was a situation that could be fully explained.

So, when it came time for the liberal-media critics at Get Religion to react, Terry Mattingly wrote a blog post with the title "No, Pope Benedict XVI did not resign." Gotcha, journalists:

Yes, "resign" is easier to fit into news headlines. The problem is that a pope has no one to resign to, other than God. The correct word is abdicate.

There's that comforting feeling of control. But wait, correct according to whom? Not Canon Law: Can. 332 2. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.

(If you want to get really technical about it, the Latin reads Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur. So fans of formal equivalency might want to insist on "renounce" as the really and truly "correct" word for what the pope has done. Good luck with that.)

The larger reality is that what Pope Benedict did on Monday is not covered in anyone's style book. Dictionary searches--Mattingly's source--do not cut it (the definition of "resign" is every bit as apt). So whence this certainty that abdicate is the correct term? Perhaps it all goes back to George Weigel, who told NBC News on Monday morning that abdicate "is frankly the word in this occasion. A resignation is something that someone hands to someone else. Popes have no one to resign to, so this is an abdication." (Thanks to Matthew Schlitz of First Things for the transcript.)Weigel dixit. Others fell in line: Ross Douthat, for example. Amusingly, Patrick Brennan, doing his own media criticism at NRO, found culpable ignorance running in the opposite direction: "Popes do not abdicate;" he sniffed, quoting a story at BuzzFeed, "per 332, 2, of Canon law, they resign." It would seem that, in fact, either term is perfectly adequate. But whichever you prefer, what really matters is that youre smug about it.

As Joseph Komonchak wrote here on Monday, the ailing John Paul II is supposed to have greeted questions about the possibility of his stepping down with the quip, "To whom would I submit my resignation?" I think Fr. Komonchak's answer -- "To the church" -- is a good one. The pope is servant of the servants of God, after all. Servants have no trouble resigning. For that matter, is it even true that, as Weigel says, a resignation is something that someone hands to someone else? Canon Law seems to have foreseen such a quibble.

Why, then, raise the issue at all? Canon Law has no objection and past precedent is useless. Unless, of course, that precedent is a certain recent pope who did not resign, or retire, or abdicate, at a time when observers were suggesting that it might be a good idea. There were many who defended John Paul II's decision to stay in office, pointing to the valuable witness he provided to the world of perserverance in suffering. But some defenders went further, insisting that his decision not to resign was the only possible decision -- the pope couldn't resign; it would be wrong for the pope to resign. "Christ didnt come down from the cross," John Paul II is widely reported to have said, although I dont know who first claimed to have heard him say it. I cant find an original source for the "to whom would I submit?" quip either. But they were both widely repeated in John Paul II's last days. Popes don't quit was the implicit message. They answer to God.

Now, in his decision to renounce his office due to physical weakness, Benedict has implicitly disagreed with all such arguments. Whether or not he privately believes his predecessor ought to have resigned, he clearly does believe that the option was available. There's not much anyone can do to get around that awkward fact, but if you once insisted that it was impossible for the pope to resign, you may still be able to save some face with semantic pedantry.

William Saletan has noticed some convenient reversals: "A chorus of Catholics is singing a new tune," he wrote at Slate. I think "hypocrisy" is too strong a term for the examples he calls out. Predictable brown-nosing might be better. Peggy Noonan's gushing is certainly (even more) embarrassing in retrospect. (I do love her image of BXVI bearing away the burden of the sex-abuse crisis as he goes -- more than a bit reminiscent of her suggestion that the United States ought to just keep walking past and away from the evidence of its recourse to torture and abuse.) In any case, I'm not as confident as Saletan that the two positions he outlines are mutually exclusive: either Benedict is making the right decision and John Paul made the wrong one, or vice versa. Different strokes for different popes, perhaps. And it isn't necessarily a symptom of mindless groupthink to hope that both men might have been guided in their different paths by the same Spirit. I do agree, though, that if we must react at all, more honest questioning and less self-contradictory certitude is called for.

It's not a bad thing for us Catholics to be surprised now and then -- even by the pope. In fact it's probably quite healthy. But if you're still feeling too shaken up by this dramatic departure from tradition, you can always lean on that old reassuring phrase: "As the church has always taught."

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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