Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will step down from Saint-Peter’s seat at the end of February.
Although not a unique case in the history of the Church, it is quite rare. Why then did Pope Benedict choose that route?
Let us first position the debate by saying that the place of the Pope itself at the head of the Church is rare. Buddhists, save the Dalaï Lama’s particular, flavor do not have a “Pope”. Neither do Jews nor Muslims.
As the representative of the link from Jesus to the Christians, the Pope occupies an important part in the life of the Church. For that reason and also due to the centuries of existence of the body of believers he represents, during which the ways of man as politics have often become the ways of the prelates in Rome, the Pope has been raised to symbolic value and his replacement is normally expected to be done after his passing away. It mimics somewhat the filial ( most often ) transition of the Kings & Princes, giving the impression of continuity to the lineage of Peter’s successors. The complex mechanism of a papal election also give the whole affair mysterious if not mystic overtones. Never mind the Cardinals being holed up or the color of the smoke seen on St-Peter’s Square, the idea is usually to tie together the destinies of those who hold the job.
One consequence of this state of affairs is that the Pope usually lasts at the reins until his dying breath. And yet, I mentioned previous resignations. Two very different considerations were the reasons behind these. The first historically confirmed resignation of a Pope was that of… Benedict IX! In 1045, he was behaving so scandalously that he was given riches to leave by his successor to be Gregory VI. Gregory then had to resign himself as exchanging valuables for a place in the Church is a sin called simony. It was again the reason in 1415 behind Gregory XII’s choice to resign as the Church was split in 3 with a Pope in Avignon, France, one in Pisa, Italy and of course Gregory in Rome. By resigning, he opened the door to the Council of Constance to elect a commonly designated successor agreeable to all. In both occurrences, saving the Church from splitting apart was the idea!
In order however to understand why the present Pope is abdicating, we must turn to the second reason. In 1294, Pope Celestine V also resigned. In fact, he gave the “legal” OK to do so by signing a decree allowing it and using the new found liberty to go back to a simple life as a hermit. Ever since, the validity of a Pope’s possible resignation has been recognized.
The importance of that possibility was not clear at first. It was, after all, not needed all that much.
As he left Rome for Paris to go crown Napoleon in 1804 however, Pope Pius VII gave us a setting in which that right of resignation served the very freedom of the Church. Afraid that Bonaparte might go as far as imprison him, Pius had the excellent idea of drafting a letter of resignation to allow for his replacement if the worst happened. That also implied that the Church as a whole was more important than the man named as Pope himself, not as inextricably linked as some thought.
The next three cases all occurred in the 20th century : Pope Pius XII followed the example of his namesake drafting a similar secret letter in case the Nazis captured him again to allow the Church to replace him. Then John-Paul II, also in February but 1989, wrote a letter ( some rumors credit Paul VI with intents of the sort ) on the matter. He specified incurable disease or severe and prolonged impairment as conditions for the Council to accept it for the greater good of the Church. That was the precedent for Benedict XVI. It has to be remembered that both men held each other in immense respect. All 3, if one includes Paul VI, were over the age of 80.
The Canonic Law that governs the Church thus says little save that the Pope’s decision to resign has to be made freely and to be manifest. The present situation is in accordance to that rule.
Let me now re-introduce a concept often discussed but rarely explained : papal infallibility. When expressing himself on points of doctrine, acts drawn by the Pope to give a definition are infallible.
It means that they are irreformable. In a sense, it proclaims the Watch of the Holy Spirit over the Pope’s work. It neither means that Popes as men never fail. It is not valid if the Pope predicts the next World Cup’s winner, only on definitive clarifications of Faith or Morals as pertaining to Doctrine. Infallibility also applies to Bishops in the same circumstances by the way, which if it was known more would likely lessen the unease some have towards it.
Christ having said that his Church would not pass, be spared the Gates of Hell, the Church itself will not cease existing. In that respect, it may change form though and if it did happen that Rome and the Pope plunged into Apostasy ( renouncement of belief ) by heresy, the body of it would be threatened and cease to exist, leaving the Faithful without trust and truth.
In the light of this reminder, let us now consider the paragraph of the Holy Pontiff’s missive announcing the essential need behind his resignation :
However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the boat of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.
It begins with something quite eloquent as regards Life in the Century, being and living in the physical World of Man as of today ( say March 1rst 2013 when it will be effective ).
Benedict XVI recognizes the rapidity of changes of our inter-connected globe with its shorter time-frame. Fast times need a fast Pope. He acknowledges the questions that can shake the Faith.
Hard times and choices need a strong Pope. Paul VI thought about it. John-Paul II prepared for it. Benedict XVI acts on it.
This is why I brought up infallibility. The principle of papal succession does not need the king-like inheritance pretense. We have moved on to frequent elections to choose our leaders instead and for all the flaws of this new way, it allows adaptation to events. Following this understanding, Pope Benedict insures the transmission of the role over the appearance of continuity. He understands that the men are but keepers of the Faith. He gives preeminence to the job at hand over the title. He wants the Truth to survive so that the Church itself does.
After all, Jesus calls humans to an attempt at a perfection that most of us cannot reach. Benedict feels the strength needed to LEAD that attempt elude him. He feels the man he is as made fallible by age and sickness and does not wish that to impinge on the infallibility of the Pope and the Church and the Faith.
After all, Angels are perfect in form but lack Faith itself as belief in God is their nature. Imperfect in form, Humans have but Faith to hang on to.
Benedict XVI just placed that Faith above his human self. A sort of subservience to God’s Will that is very old-fashioned and somehow also extremely Modern of him as we just saw.
A modernity many had not thought him nor his office nor even the Church to possess!
They stand corrected.
And in the light of this event, let me wish the strength to better oneself to all my human brothers and sisters, whichever Faith inhabits them, even none, Tay.