Pope's surprise resignation liberates cardinal electors


Opinion:The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI with effect from 8pm on February 28th has sent commentators scurrying to the textbooks for historical precedents. In fact, there are none.

A handful of popes did indeed abdicate in the course of the Middle Ages. All but one of them, however, did so with the medieval equivalent of a gun to their heads.

They were forced out by powerful rulers or, as in the case of Gregory XII in 1415, by a general council determined to end the nightmare of three claimants to the papacy in a bewildered and divided Christendom.

The nearest approximation to Benedict’s dramatic move was the abdication in 1294 of Pope Celestine V, the saintly hermit elected in his 85th year by cardinals hoping for an “angel pope” who would transcend the politics in which the papacy was mired.

Predictably, he turned out to be politically naive and hopelessly inept and was badgered into resignation after only six months in office by the ruthless cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who immediately succeeded him as Boniface VIII.

The new pope prudently had the old man arrested and confined to a tower,

where he died from septicaemia a year later.

Benedict is unlikely to share Celestine’s fate, for all the sabre-rattling by high-profile secularists calling for his arrest for alleged collusion in the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. But papal resignation has always been controversial.

Medieval commentators were deeply divided about the legitimacy if not the possibility of such an abdication. Dante probably had Celestine in mind as the shadowy figure in the first circle of Hell “who by his cowardice made the great refusal”: Petrarch, by contrast, considered Celestine’s action as a model of exemplary virtue.

Papal departure has been mooted in modern times too. Pope Pius XII was said to have lodged a letter of resignation with his Vatican aides during the second World War. It was to take effect should he be arrested by the Gestapo and transported as a prisoner to Germany.

Religious icon

Many people thought and said that Pope Benedict’s titanic predecessor, John Paul II, should have resigned long before his death in 2005 since age and Parkinson’s disease had manifestly long since rendered him incapable of managing the world’s largest international organisation. But the pope is a religious icon as well as a chief executive. John Paul’s heroic and deeply moving struggle through the last weeks of his life silenced, if they did not exactly answer, those bleak utilitarian criticisms.

Whether or not one agreed that the papacy was a cross laid on a man’s shoulders which must be borne to the end, Wojtyla’s courage in the face of the pain and humiliations of his condition were widely perceived as a vindication of the dignity of old age, and a demonstration of how a Christian should die.

John Paul II’s heroic persistence was certainly in Pope Benedict’s mind in drafting his own resignation statement.

In it he acknowledges that the papal ministry is exercised not only in “words and deeds” but “no less with prayer and suffering”, an unmistakable allusion to his predecessor’s controversial final years.

But Pope Benedict is clearly more conscious than his predecessor was that in the absolute autocracy that is the papacy, if the pope is not doing his job, somebody else is, behind the scenes.

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.

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