Just a few minutes ago the Swiss Guards closed the main doors of the Papal Residence at Castel Gandolfo, indicating that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to abdicate the Papacy has taken effect, ending his career as Pope. Pope Benedict’s momentous decision of February 11, 2013 opened the way to serious reflection among Catholics, and I think it will have an impact on the Church for years and maybe even for centuries.
During his Pontificate Benedict XVI was always concerned about the dangers of relativism. Now, by the reasons he gave for his resignation, he shows that the Papacy itself is not immune. For centuries we were led to believe that the Papacy is a divine institution not measurable by any human standards. In resigning, Benedict revealed his view that the Papacy can be measured relative to performance, and that he resigned because he is no longer capable of meeting his own performance expectations.
At a stroke he has removed the aura of divinity that surrounded the Papacy. He has clarified that the Papacy is primarily a ministry of service, and when the incumbent becomes incapable of providing that service, it is time to make way for another who can provide what is needed.
This means that future Popes will be under a new kind of scrutiny. They can no longer presume that once elected they are there until the end of their days. Benedict has introduced a new standard and has indicated the course to follow if the standard is not being met.
I think it is Providential that this is being done by a Pope of Benedict’s intellectual and spiritual stature. It cannot be dismissed as an aberration of a Pope who lacks understanding or adequate formation. Coming from a person of Benedict’s professorial standing it must be taken as a serious and thoughtful commentary on the role and function of the Papacy in the Church.
History will one day pass its verdict on Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to abdicate. I believe that Benedict served the Church and the Papacy well. By his abdication and the reasons he gave for that decision he has opened the way for a Church that is more transparent, and a Papacy that is less like Imperial Rome and more like the Servant model proposed by Jesus in the Gospel: “You know how the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20, 25-27).