How Benedict Just Revolutionized The Papacy

Ross today worried about the theological consequences of a papal resignation. It does subtly shift the theology of the office – for the better, I’d say. The way in which the papacy and the clerical state as a whole had begun to assume almost super-human capacities in the heretical mind of some undoubtedly contributed to the child-rape conspiracy over which Benedict presided. Underscoring a possibility the Dish noted yesterday, Alexander Still holds out the hope that, whatever conspiracy theories are proffered, “the Pope is making a clear-eyed decision based on a desire to spare the Church, and himself, the full cost of what may be a long, slow decline toward death”:

Predictably, for an institution in which one is expected to die in office, there is a long tradition of electing elderly Popes. Ambitious younger cardinals have sometimes pushed the candidacy of this or that septuagenarian in the hopes of occupying the throne of Saint Peter in a few years’ time. Electing a young and vigorous Pope who governs for an entire generation—as in the case of Karol Wojtyla, who was fifty-eight when he became John Paul II—carries a considerable risk: that of allowing a hugely important and highly diverse planetary institution to gradually bear the personal stamp of one man. The election of Benedict XVI, then Joseph Ratzinger, at age seventy-eight expressed a desire for continuing the Wojtyla legacy (since Ratzinger had been one of John Paul II’s key advisers) as well as a wish to avoid another twenty-eight-year papacy. And yet his brief and often controversial reign shows the risks of electing an elderly man more than ten years past the normal age of retirement as Pope.

Seen in this light, Benedict’s decision to step down may suggest an effort at finding a third way. By setting a precedent for papal resignation, it offers the possibility of choosing someone closer to the prime of life who may not need to reign into full senescence.

Similarly, in a really helpful primer on the historical backdrop to Benedict’s abdication, Kevin White emphasizes that the Pope consciously may be trying to revolutionize the future of the office:

The better frame for today’s events is that they are precedent-setting. It remains to be seen, in future years, if Benedict’s successors will follow his example. But Benedict may have just established a new, and revolutionary, norm for holding the papal office. It affirms that the pope is not primarily a personality, or a gifted human being, but an officeholder who serves for the good of the Roman Catholic Church.

Potentially, this could serve to reduce the personality-driven, almost celebrity-like attitude towards the papacy that developed among many under John Paul II. The office remains the same, but this practice could emphasize that the man holding it is simply the recipient of a sacred, but temporary, trust.

John Paul II’s legacy as a super-star was not, in my view, good for the institution as a whole. David Gibson adds:

[A] graceful exit could also be Benedict’s lasting legacy precisely because this most traditional of churchmen has, with his simple decision, effectively altered the meaning of the papacy.

“Benedict’s resignation helps refine the notion of the papacy and, thanks be to God, distinguishes the person from the office,” Terence Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, wrote in a discussion of Benedict’s resignation at the blog of Commonweal, a leading Catholic magazine…

There is still the potential for this move to become another left-right battle in the church. Liberals could welcome this reimagining of the papacy as a way of demystifying the job and perhaps pointing toward a less papal, more collegial form of church governance. Conservatives could fear the same thing.

And perhaps especially telling on this front is what the fate of Benedict’s Twitter account might confirm about the above speculations:

[W]hen the Vatican was choosing a handle for the pope, @benedictusppxvi was considered and rejected in favor of the more general, less personal @pontifex. This would seem to indicate the Twitter handle is attached to the office, not the man. Additionally, though Benedict personally composed his first tweet on an iPad on Dec. 12 (not without technical difficulty), most of the tweets from his account have been composed by aides. Therefore, it’s likely that control of the Twitter account will remain with the Vatican rather than with Benedict.