Into uncharted waters
The resignation: how it happenedRobert Mickens
- 16 February 2013
Benedict XVI’s announcement of his retirement took the world by surprise. In less than a fortnight, he will step down. Here, our Rome correspondent, who watched this week’s extraordinary events unfold, judges the measure of a truly historical moment
This is the most significant event to happen in the life of the Catholic Church since John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. And it is no exaggeration to call it a bombshell. For the first time since the Middle Ages, a pope has resigned from office. “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God,” Pope Benedict XVI confessed last Monday to a group of cardinals, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
The announcement was like a bolt out of the blue. Yes, Benedict had theorised in the past that a pope could resign (he said so even when he was still a cardinal). And certainly he has shown increasing signs of age and ailment over the past year. It would have made more sense had he linked it to a milestone, such as his eighty-sixth birthday or the eighth anniversary of his election as Bishop of Rome, both in mid April. But the fact that he could not wait those extra eight or nine weeks underlines forcefully the urgency of his decision.
Pope Benedict told the cardinals he no longer had the necessary “strength of mind and body” to fulfil his duties. He made the announcement on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the very day the universal Church observed the World Day of the Sick. Speaking softly and slowly in Latin, he said: “Well aware of the seriousness of this act, with complete freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, successor of St Peter.” He said his resignation will come into effect at 8 p.m. (Rome time) on 28 February. From this point the period of sede vacante, or “empty chair”, will begin.
According to Mgr Guido Marini, master of pontifical liturgical celebrations, the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor should begin 15 to 20 days after the beginning of the sede vacante. This means between 15 and 20 March. The director of the Holy See press office, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, has said the new Pope will be in place by Easter so there is pressure to begin the conclave at the start of the permitted time. Fr Lombardi admitted that it had caught everyone by surprise, including those in the Vatican. It has understandably elicited various emotions. It has also raised serious questions.
For example, are Benedict’s reasons for resigning as straightforward as he insisted in his 350-word statement? And were there hints that should have made this less surprising than it actually was? Perhaps the last question is easier to answer. Church legislation, after all, provides for the Bishop of Rome’s resignation. According to the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law: “If it should happen that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone” (canon law 322, paragraph 2).
And at least as far back as 2004, when he was still a Roman Curia cardinal – and Pope John Paul II was becoming increasingly incapacitated – Joseph Ratzinger praised the wisdom of that canonical provision. He did so again after ascending to the papacy. “If a pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,” Benedict XVI told Peter Seewald in a book-length interview published in the autumn of 2010. Around the same time, he visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V in the mountain town of L’Aquila and left the pallium with which he was installed as Bishop of Rome on the dead Pope’s tomb. Was it a deliberately prescient gesture? Celestine resigned the papacy in 1294.
It is believed that Pope Benedict delivered a further hint in a private meeting in October 2012 with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Dr Williams was in Rome to address the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation and had announced that he would step down at the end of December to accept the post of master at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He had, I understand, previously discussed his plans with Pope Benedict before they became public. In the October meeting as they discussed Dr Williams’ impending departure, Pope Benedict is thought to have spoken candidly about how tired he was and he listened with a certain wistfulness as Dr Williams talked about his plans.
In November 2012, Benedict called a last-minute consistory to create a mere six new cardinals; last month he conferred episcopal ordination on his personal secretary, Mgr Georg Gänswein. Of course, with a couple more weeks as Pope, he could make even more key moves. For instance, he could still fill the three remaining slots in the College of Cardinals to bring the number of electors to its 120-member ceiling. It will be fascinating to see what the Pope does in his last days in office.
But it is more difficult to understand why the Pope decided to resign and do so at this particular moment. There are a number of possible answers. It could be just as he said – old age has sapped his “strength of mind and body”. But that does not explain the timing. Although Vatican officials deny it, there could be a more serious health issue. An unsubstantiated rumour in the Roman Curia is that the Pope has pancreatic cancer. Or is it possible that he fears his mental faculties are waning? If there is a more ominous ailment, it is understandable that the reserved Benedict would like to deal with it privately.
Could it be that he has been weighed down by the scandals and seemingly insurmountable challenges he must bear as global leader of the Catholic Church? Peter Seewald pointedly asked him in 2010 if the “burden” of the priest sex-abuse crisis had ever made him want to quit. “When the danger is great, one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign,” Benedict said, adding that a pope could only “resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on”.
While that was more than two years ago, the Church today is in no more of a “peaceful time” than it was back then. If anything, the magnitude of the sex-abuse crisis is widening. In Germany, where the Pope served briefly as Archbishop of Munich, the Church is undergoing a deeper examination of conscience and making an honest appraisal of how past cases of abuse were handled.
Beyond, the turbulence extends. In Europe, the British Isles and North America, a growing number of priests are forming associations to demand structural reforms in church governance, ministry and pastoral practice. And while there are meagre signs of growth in some conservative quarters, many more so-called “Vatican II Catholics” in the developed world have begun to walk away from the Church. Additionally, the Pope has certainly been pained that the ultra-traditionalist Society of St Pius X has rebuffed his overly generous attempts to bring it back into the communion with Rome – even at the cost of alienating more mainstream Catholics.
All these explanations are possibilities, or could at least have been determining factors. But there is an even more interesting hypothesis. Perhaps Pope Benedict – a man who has consistently resisted calls for structural change in the Church – is attempting to usher in a real and practical “reform” of the papacy by personal example. His resignation has the possibility of demythologising an institution that has too often been conflated with quasi-divine attributes. If it were to set a precedent, it could have all sorts of consequences that would unfold only over time.
Just as important, as a resigned Pope, Benedict will have a far greater psychological influence over the men who elect his successor. He will have a better chance to ensure that the new man will continue to take the Church in the same direction, and follow the same vision, that he has laid out for her. Whatever the reasons, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has launched the Barque of Peter into uncharted waters. How clement or treacherous they are remains to be seen.