Popes rarely resign. And when they have done so in the past it has been either under duress or willfully but with dire consequences. The saintly Pope Celestine V barely had time to enjoy his retirement benefits; his successor, Boniface VIII, preferred to keep him on a short leash. In other words, although there are precedents for papal resignations it has been a checkered history and few pontiffs have availed themselves of the option.
Till now. At the end of February, Pope Benedict XVI will cease to be Peter; the Chair will be empty; the Servant of the Servants of God, Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of the West, Head of the Vatican City State, Primate of Italy, and Successor of St. Peter will have resigned. Time for an election and a new pontifex maximus.
But this will be different from the past: there will be no papal funeral, no solemn obsequies, no designated time for mourning. A new protocol will have to be put in place to ensure that the old pope, now Joseph Ratzinger, is not a player in the election of the new pope, whoever he happens to be. Now they will have to find a place where the former supreme pontiff can retire and not be in the way of the new one. This is a delicate matter being explored on not hitherto familiar terrain. And the Roman system does like its familiar terrain.
But the Romans are also resilient; they’ll find a way; they always do.
The deeper question swirling around the resignation is not so much the “how” as the “why.” Certainly, Cardinal Ratzinger had mooted during the protracted dying of his predecessor John Paul II that there are may well be reasons why a pope should resign and that such an action would be both canonically and ecclesiologically justified. He may have been thinking of John Paul II; now he is thinking of Benedict XVI.
Although many prelates, commentators, and papal analysts profess not to have seen this coming – and I number myself among them – the signs were certainly there for the seeing. Benedict appointed his long-serving secretary Georg Ganswein an archbishop and made him Prefect of the Papal Household in addition to his current duties (rewarding your secretary with an episcopal appointment is usually a harbinger of the end); the pope moved quickly through a series of episcopal ordinations and diplomatic appointments with uncharacteristic speed in the last couple of months; bishops throughout the world returning from their five-year visits to the pontiff were struck by the seeming air of drift in the Vatican; bishops in Rome and elsewhere fretted over governance dysfunction; it seemed as if a wearied pope was moving inexorably to disengagement.
The distinguished Hungarian Jesuit lawyer and theologian Ladislas Orsy told me just last week in Washington that he had only recently returned from Rome and everyone is talking – sotto voce, naturally – of the “end of the pontificate.” Given that Benedict is not unwell, I asked him what he meant. He simply repeated the phrase like a mantra: it is the end of the pontificate.
And so it is.
But why? We should take Benedict at his word: he is tired, his energies increasingly depleted, his ability to exercise his universal pastorate with the passion and pleasure that marked his early years in the Petrine ministry no longer sustainable.
But I think there are other factors afoot. His has not been a smooth pontificate; controversies roil the church; he was genuinely pained by what he saw as signs of disloyalty to him personally and Benedict places a very high premium on personal loyalty. He wrote a public letter to his fellow bishops lamenting the whirlwind of criticism around his decision to lift the excommunications of the renegade bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (he had not in fact rehabilitated the anti-Semite Bishop Williamson as charged but the confusion around the Society’s legal status and the appalling communications that issued from the Vatican damaged the pope); he complained that his fellow German bishops were ungrateful to him and he expected more from them than griping; he found the in-house VatiLeaks deplorable, undermining his own principal officers, the curia, and sowing antagonism toward the Vatican in the larger Catholic world; the personal betrayal of his butler, Paulo Gabriele, proved especially disappointing.
I think the pope is dispirited. Unlike John Paul II he is not inclined to robust confrontation, is not fuelled with the energies generated by large crowds and inhuman schedules, much preferring to monitor the faith’s integrity and vitality from the quiet corridors of the Holy Office than from the Apostolic Palace.
It is time for another to carry the cross and perhaps from his secluded study he can watch and maybe ensure from a discreet distance that full reclamation of a traditional Catholic identity he has so tenaciously pursued during his years as pope. After all, his electors are mostly of like mind.
Michael W. Higgins is an author and vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.