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).
Pope Celestine V did Pope Benedict XVI a favor when he resigned from the Papacy in 1294. Five months after he had reluctantly accepted the Papacy at 79 years of age, Celestine issued a decree declaring that a Pope has the authority to resign from the Papacy. Then on the basis of the authority he had just given himself, Celestine V resigned the Papacy to return to his former life as a hermit.
So when Pope Benedict XVI made the surprise announcement on February 11, 2013, that he would resign the Papacy on February 28, 2013, he knew he had the authority to do so, thanks to the 1294 decree of Pope Celestine V.
Pope Benedict’s words reveal that his decision was well-considered, taken after serious reflection and prayer. I think it is a brave decision on his part, taken out of consideration for what is best for the People of God and for the administration of the affairs of the Church in today’s world.
I think his decision also does a service to the Papacy by showing that if the incumbent does not have the physical as well as the spiritual qualities needed to fulfill the responsibilities, then it is time to step aside and allow someone with the needed qualities to take over.
Perhaps Pope Benedict’s decision to resign opens the way for new thinking about the Papacy in modern times. In modern times the membership of the Catholic Church has passed the one billion mark. The Church must be able to adapt fluently to reach out to a wide variety of cultures in a rapidly changing world.
It seems unreasonable to expect that a newly-elected Pope would carry these responsibilities for life, especially as improved healthcare has enabled people to live long into the declining years. Pope Benedict’s decision to resign opens the possibility of a term limit for the Papacy. Seven is a Biblical and liturgical number. Perhaps a maximum term of 7 years, not renewable, would be a starting point.
Pope Benedict’s decision to continue living in the Vatican may help us to get used to the idea of a former Pope living just a few blocks away from the reigning Pope in residence. We might even get used to the idea of several former Popes living in the same neighborhood. For the sake of peace it would be important for a Pope to remember that the claim to infallibility ends with retirement from the office.
All credit to Benedict XVI for freely deciding to resign the Papacy. It must have been a difficult decision for him. But I think it was a wise decision, and may well be the most significant and memorable act of his entire Papal career.