Why Now?

One should almost certainly take the Pope’s reasons for his remarkable abdication at face value. The sheer magnitude of the crisis facing Christianity in modernity is indeed a Sisyphean task for a man well into his 80s. Rocco suggests some other coincidences:

For what it’s worth, today’s date provides two possible rationales for the timing of Joseph Ratzinger’s epic announcement – first, this feast of Our Lady of Lourdes marks the church’s annual World Day of the Sick… in the Vatican, meanwhile, this is Independence Day: the anniversary of the 1929 Lateran Pacts which made the Holy See’s home-turf a sovereign city-state, with the Roman pontiff as its absolute monarch.

Nonetheless, the suddenness of this is striking. Are new revelations about the Vatican Bank or the child-rape crisis about to emerge? Is there a more urgent health problem that we are unaware of? Why not wait till after Easter at least? There will doubtless be a lot of speculation and gossip. The Vatican does all that very very well.

The Pope Resigns: Your Thoughts

Faithfuls React At Pope Benedict XVI Resignation News

A reader writes:

I was struck by the Pope’s resignation today as simultaneously profound and more of the same. For one, his act of resigning due to his being “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” (as you emphasized) can be take two ways: (1) He’s 85 years old, or (2) the weight of what he knows of the Church’s sex abuse scandal, having served as the Prefect of the CDF prior to his election, combined with the continued flow of information about this massive problem and its direct impact on the Church’s financial survival, has become too much for him to bear.

However, his abdication while still alive also gives him the power to anoint his successor virtually directly, ensuring the culture of denial, secrecy, resistance to progress, and emphasis on preservation of the Church over its people that his reign (and, indeed, his career) has personified. Color me ambivalent and leaning cynical.

Another writes:

There’s lots of speculation today that Benedict’s resignation is linked to some aspect of the child-rape scandal. I’d like to draw attention to what may be a supporting detail for that hypothesis I haven’t yet seen mentioned in today’s coverage: The effective firing of Cardinal Roger Mahony from all public duties by the Archbishop of Los Angeles on January 31. Though I’m no expert on the church, it struck me as extraordinary at the time that an Archbishop would be permitted to make such a public rebuke of a Cardinal. If the goal were to lower Mahony’s public profile, he could simply have withdrawn from those activities quietly.

It strikes me that we may be seeing ripples of something much larger moving under the surface. Perhaps it’s a sort of coup that reached critical mass among the church hierarchy – “Enough is enough.” Or perhaps something even more disgraceful is about to become known.

But Mahony will still help pick the Pope’s successor. Another reader:

The Pope resigns shortly after he’s burgled by his butler who he then pardons. Maybe it’s cuz I watched Mea Maxima Culpa last night but I simply cannot believe someone isn’t forcing him to do this as penance for something he covered up. There is some Godfather III stuff goin’ on here.

A survivor of sexual abuse writes:

In reading the coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation as pope, I’m struck by the almost complete absence of any references to the actual survivors of sexual abuse by priests. Most of the coverage of the pope talks about his papacy and his orthodox Augustinian views. If articles refer to the abuse he presided over at all, they make a veiled reference like, “the abuse scandal overshadowed some of his papacy.” But the voices of the actual survivors are nowhere to be found.

As a survivor of sexual abuse by a pedophile, I know that this is one of the most common tactics used to silence us and deny us a voice: refuse to acknowledge that we exist at all. So often, when I’ve tried to talk about my experience, people refer to it as “that alleged incident” or “that thing that happened to you.” And this just makes me want to remain silent, knowing that my voice is insignificant and won’t be believed. On a much larger level, I see this happening with the Catholic Church.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if the Church is hopelessly lost, or if it can honestly take an accounting of its crimes and redeem itself. But I do know that any honest accounting can’t begin until the voices of the actual survivors are listened to and given a central place at the table. As long as we are pushed to the side and ignored, no real change can occur.


A small thing but it stood out for me in your take on Ratzinger’s early retirement. In your reference to ordained priests raping children, you twice used the word “monster” and “monstrous.” I’m reminded oddly of a course on the Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor from my bachelor degree (I did a minor in Catholic studies). My instructor mentioned the etymological route of the word monster, from the Latin monstrare. To show, to demonstrate.

The point was that monsters, understood in the medieval sense, pointed to an evil in need of grace. These crimes, these vicious, inhuman crimes, stand out as a sign in their own right to the evil the church has papered over in recent years with dense encyclicals: Thomist, intellectual straw. But the crimes are what the world has seen of the church. These monsters and their monstrous crimes stood as their own visible demonstration of the condemnation of the church, and Ratzinger’s theology could not cover it.

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(Photo: Worshippers attend a special evening mass at St. Hedwig Catholic cathedral following the announced resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on February 11, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Pope Benedict XVI, born Josef Ratzinger in Germany, announced to Vatican clergy on Monday that he feels too physically frail to continue meeting the demands of being the Pope and will step down officially on February 28. By Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Who Would Benedict Pick?


Amy Davidson wonders how the outgoing Pope will influence the selection of his successor:

According to the Vatican’s press briefing this morning, [Benedict] will not take part in the formal selection; he will retreat to Castel Gandolfo, and, once there is a successor, to a cloister within the Vatican to live out his days. Can he have a favorite? (One of the complaints about him has been that he tends to.) And what would it mean for the cardinals to openly argue about what they want in their next Pope—a Benedict or an anti-Benedict—while he is alive? This is a Pope whose doctrinaire conservatism has had an ossifying effect; this is a moment when we will see what other voices there might be left in the Church.

Schoenborn? Michael Sean Winters hopes that the Pope will not interfere:

Any hint of papal meddling in the selection of a successor will be viewed with deep suspicion. You might analogize the situation when you consider the way presidents, no matter what their party, are keen to protect executive privilege in their dealings with Congress. Some things transcend the normal alignments of ideological attitude and familial bonds, and the right of the College of Cardinals to select a new pope is one of those things.

Bainbridge, meanwhile, calls Benedict’s resignation maybe “the bravest thing he’s done in office”:

The Catholic Church faces crises that require action: The Vatican Bank scandal, the ongoing fallout from the pedophile priest scandal, declining numbers of priests, and the secularization of Europe. The Church could not afford another lengthy period of inaction and indecision while waiting for a dying Pope to pass away. It needed a younger man. Now.

(Photo: This combo made with twelve file picture on February 11, 2013 shows Cardinals likely to succeed to Pope Benedict XVI who announced today he will step down at the end of this month after an eight-year pontificate. Top row from left : Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodrigues Maradiaga, Argentine Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Brazilian Joao Braz de Aviz, Philippines’ Luis Antonio Tagle, and Nigerian Peter Turkson. Bottom row from left: Austrian Cristoph Schonborn, Hungarian Peter Erdoe, Italian Angelo Scola, Canadian Marc Ouellet, Nigerian Francis Arinze, Nigerian John Onaiyekan, and USA’s Timothy Dolan. By Desk/AFP/Getty Images)

Not A Resignation; An Abdication

George Weigel, super-theocon, explains:

I think that is frankly the word in this occasion. A resignation is something that someone hands to someone else. Popes have no one to resign to, so this is an abdication. He has said that he would consider this. I am sure that he considered it thoughtfully and prayerfully.

It is obviously unprecedented, but I think we’ve all had the sense, both from the realities of a world where people live much longer than before and from the pope’s words, that this was a real possibility.

I find the timing of this somewhat surprising since the pope is leading the church right now through what he calls a year of faith, a special year devoted to the theological virtue of faith, the proclamation of Christian faith throughout the world.

A Black Pope?

3rd Annual Boston Catholic Men's Conference

Charles Pierce considers some of the papal frontrunners:

There is a lot of early buzz now about the possibility that the next pope may come from Africa. (Peter Cardinal Turkson of Ghana is said to be one of the more prominent early-line papabileHe is rather of a piece with the rest of the bishops and cardinals appointed by John Paul II, god help us all. The hierarchy plainly hopes that the event of a black pope will distract the world’s attention from his waffling on the use of condoms as regards the spread of AIDS, and a very strange episode involving the screening of an anti-Muslim film.) This becomes even more intriguing when you realize that investigators have long suspected that the scandal was particularly egregious among missionary clergy far from the media spotlight — in Africa, say, or the remote islands of the south Pacific.

My own view is that any attempt to distract from the child-rape epidemic by focusing on Africa could easily backfire. There’s plenty of orthodoxy in Africa – but also plenty of clerical sexual misbehavior, greater levels of deference, and almost certainly the same types of scenarios in which priests can and do abuse their power. De facto marriage and even polygamy among priests is not unknown. The sex abuse crisis was and is global in scale and scope. No region is immune – because the authoritarian, institutional structure is what enables and perpetuates it.

But that, of course, is not to say that a developing world Cardinal could not be an inspiring choice – just that it is not a panacea; and the church’s deepest crisis is in the West, which also subsidizes a great deal of the rest. The church cannot recruit its way back to health; it has to repent first, then renew.

(Photo: Cardinal Peter Turkson, left, of Ghana and Cardinal Sean O’Malley listen to introductions at the 3rd annual Boston Catholic Men’s Conference at Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, Saturday, March 17, 2007. By Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

What Now For Benedict?


Pope Emeritus? The invaluable Rocco Palmo examines the unprecedented options:

There is no established protocol whatsoever for the titles, status or prerogatives of a retired Pope.

But there were signs:

On Friday, Benedict raised some eyebrows by having a rare private audience with the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the 85 year-old Italian Angelo Sodano, the figure who would be responsible for the convoking of a papal election. The departing pontiff ostensibly communicated his plan to the Cardinal-Dean at that point.

What we do know about his new status as ex-Pope:

Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.

Pope Benedict XVI will move to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo when his resignation shall become effective.

When renovation work on the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican is complete, the Holy Father will move there for a period of prayer and reflection.

What fascinates me is whether he can now be prosecuted for “crimes against humanity” for having enabled and concealed the rape of countless children in an institution under his direct authority – from the moment in 2001 when every single sex abuse case went to his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to his decision to leave Marcial Maciel alone to keep raping the innocent and continued cover-ups even after the reality had been so brutally exposed.

To put it more bluntly: now that he is no longer protected from legal accountability as a head of state, can lawsuits proceed?

(Photo: This file picture taken on July 4, 2010 shows Pope Benedict XVI looking on as he seats near the relics of one of his predecessors, St Celestine V, during a Holy mass on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of Celestine V’s birth in central Garibaldi square in Sulmona. Pope Benedict XVI announced on February 11, 2013 his resignation, while the last pope to have abdicated the papacy is Celestin V in 1294. By Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Resignation And The Papacy

This is worth absorbing:

It could very well be that Pope Benedict’s greatest contribution to Catholic ecclesiology will be that he resigned the papal office.

How paradoxical that a Pope who, after John Paul II, had elevated both the Papal and the priestly state to near God-like status, has effectively, by his abdication, brought the institution back to earth. Money quote from Joseph A. Komonchak:

By this act, his frank admission that to carry out the Petrine ministry certain conditions of bodily and mental health are required, Benedict helps bring the papacy back within the Church, down from what Hans Urs von Balthasar called “pyramid-like isolation.” It also suggests the thought that if a pope can resign for health reasons, he might resign for other reasons also, as, for example, because he agrees with something Newman said in 1870:

“It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, does cruel things without meaning it.”

Oh for another Newman.

The Pope Resigns: Tweet Reax

Christianity In Crisis: The Papal Resignation Letter

<> on June 2, 2012 in Milan, Italy.

Here it is, as translated into English:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.

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 govern the bark 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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

From the Vatican, 10 February 2013

My italics. (Photo: Getty.)