Pope's surprise resignation liberates cardinal electors
His statement goes on to insist that “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of
deep relevance for the life of faith” a pope must have “strength both of mind and body”.
In those few words a momentous shift of understanding is signalled. For more than a millennium the papacy’s role has been at least as much a religious icon as an administrative centre. In recent times popes have acted and have been perceived as a different kind of creature from all other bishops.
All of Pope Benedict’s episcopal colleagues are obliged to offer their resignation when they reach 75 (an offer that is rarely refused). And all cardinals are automatically disqualified from participation in papal elections when they turn 80.
Only the papacy itself has been thought to be above questions of effectiveness and competence. No longer. In his brief and unassuming statement to the cardinals yesterday morning, in which he asked forgiveness for his deficiencies, Papa Ratzinger took a huge step towards the demystification of the world’s oldest and most sacred office, with the quiet insistence that one has to be up to the job. With that perception, that the papacy is not only Christianity’s most exalted religious calling , but a job, with mundane responsibilities which the incumbent must be fit to discharge, this modest professional theologian has changed the rules of the game.
Many will regret and some deplore his decision. But Pope Benedict has liberated his successors to think of their election as a fixed-term appointment. And he has liberated the cardinal electors, with the realisation that the church is not necessarily stuck with their choice ’till death do us part.
In the coming weeks pundits will busy themselves with the timing of this announcement and with assessments of Pope Benedict’s record. They are unlikely to be ecstatic.
Clerical abuse scandals
In Ireland, as elsewhere, attention will focus on his role in the church’s deeply uninspiring handling of the clerical abuse scandals, though history is likely to be kinder to him on that score than contemporary journalists eager to identify the smoking gun.
Vatican attitudes to the role of condoms in limiting the spread of Aids are incomprehensible and repellent to most non-Catholics, while Pope Benedict’s theological and liturgical conservativism, and the rowing back – which many attribute to his influence – from the achievements of Vatican II , have not endeared him to liberal opinion within the church itself.
But his resignation is more than the escape of a frail old man from an unbearable burden. It is a major step to reintegrating the papacy into a working ecclesiology, in which a pope’s competence is something which even loyal Catholics are entitled to discuss.
* Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow and former president of Magdalene College. His Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes and Ten Popes Who Shook the World are published by Yale University Press.