Stephen Marche, noting that in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “the last Pope who gave up his job, basically because he was too good to stomach the politics, ended up spending all eternity upside down in a hole of fire.” But he sees the “mystery” of the Roman Church’s machinations as part of its appeal:
What is so tantalizing about this story is that we’ll probably never know the actual reason, not for decades, anyway. Today the speculations will swirl, but it’ll eventually peter out [sic] when the race for the next Pope takes over the news. The Vatican is simply too opaque to make even intelligent guesses. You know how opaque the Vatican is? The journalist who broke the story heard the Pope giving his announcement to the Cardinals in Latin, and understood it, and then ran with the story. (Let nobody doubt the value of a classical education again.) The Vatican is so opaque that only recently did they release secret files about Pius XII, otherwise known as Hitler’s Pope, that showed him saving the lives of Jewish refugees. Even that bit of magnificently good news for the Church was hidden in the vaults.
Can you imagine what Ratzinger’s full files on the global child-rape conspiracy contain? That evidence of criminality may never see the light of day – like the tapes of torture deliberately destroyed by the CIA. Andrew Brown, claiming that the Pope’s resignation had been “planned” for some time – he even adds that Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, knew about this before Christmas – believes Benedict deliberately did this as a response to the years of drawn-out, sickly last years of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II:
During the decrepitude of John Paul II, Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was his right-hand man. It may be that his experience then planted in him a wish to leave office while he was still able to discharge his duties. Modern medicine does not work well with autocratic regimes traditionally renewed by death or disease, and the papacy remains the last absolute monarchy in Europe.
In Benedict’s resignation statement can be seen an implied rebuke to his predecessor, who argued that clinging to life and power for as long as possible was itself a form of witness to Christ’s suffering.
In a helpful summary of the process used to select a new Pope, Alessandro Speciale finds that secrecy and tradition are at the heart of what happens, indicated in part by a term we’re sure to hear much of in the coming weeks – “conclave”:
The word conclave is derived from the Latin phrase for “with a key.”
It was first used by Pope Gregory X in 1274 in a proclamation outlining the procedure for electing a pope in a meeting place that can be securely locked.
The conclave should open 15 days after the pope resigns but could be postponed to 20 days. All cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the new pope. Pope Paul VI limited the number of cardinal-electors to 120; currently 118 are eligible.
The cardinals live in seclusion in the Casa Santa Marta, a luxury residence inside the Vatican walls. They meet to vote under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Once the conclave begins, a cardinal-elector may leave only because of illness or other serious reason accepted by a majority of his fellow cardinals. Everyone associated with the conclave — doctors, nurses, confessors, masters of liturgical ceremonies, sacristans and various priest assistants and housekeeping and catering staff — must swear never to tell anything they learn about the election.
(Photo: Lightning strikes St Peter’s dome at the Vatican on February 11, 2013. Pope Benedict XVI announced today he will resign as leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics on February 28 because his age prevented him from carrying out his duties – an unprecedented move in the modern history of the Catholic Church. By Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)