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The New Ocean Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 23 February 2013

With gravity, and by the authority vested in him, Pope Benedict XVI has decided to withdraw from one office into another. In the coming week, he will cease to be pope, and will instead enter into a life of prayer. It is a momentous occasion, on many different inter-related planes, as he is sharply aware.

During past interviews, notably with Peter Seewald at book-length, he discussed the possibility of resigning. But what he discussed publicly had more to do with the timing, than with the act. He said it would have to be in a moment when the government of the Church was in relative tranquility, and he felt physically unable to continue.

He could not resign at a moment of apparent crisis. A resignation during a crisis would be taken and manipulated as a response to the crisis, though it were no such thing. It was his duty to resign, and be seen to be resigning, under no pressure beyond that which age and infirmity impose on every man.

This is important, in view not only of the office he is leaving, but the office he is taking up. No one on this earth has been in a better position than he – both from his direct experience and from his remarkable intelligence, both intuitive and analytical – to comprehend the forces arrayed against the Church and her mission.

As I have argued elsewhere, there is a mystical dimension to the papacy too easily overlooked by those who focus upon the governing, the pastoral, or several other functions. The prayers of a pope, in mediation between God and more than a billion living Catholics, cannot be an insignificant part of his office.

Nor can the pope’s understanding of the Church situation, from our moment within time, be irrelevant to those prayers. He is in a position not only symbolical, as high priest, but from all his practical functions to know better than anyone, what he is praying for.

To bring these two strands together: Benedict is perfectly placed, both from the nature of the office he has held, and from his own personal qualities, to enter into the Gethsemane he has chosen.

The media ask the trite question, “Will he now become the power in the wings of his successor?” The answer to this must be, yes, but in a sense quite opposite to what the media understand. The new pope will take on the pastoral and governing functions that come with the Keys, including the mystical function. But he will have the advantage, for some brief time, of the old pope’s dwelling in that Gethsemane of prayer.

Benedict has also, by his unprecedented act – for as popes did resign in the distant past, none ever resigned in anything like the modern circumstances – created an unprecedented moment for his succession.

All the habits associated with the election of a new pope are put under stress by his decision. The College of Cardinals meets without the usual preparation of an old pope on his deathbed, during which the momentum of various candidates may emerge. The very fact of the resignation alters the thinking and assumptions. I should not be surprised by the election of a pope on nobody’s list of leading candidates.

The election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy was, in retrospect, only made possible by the long painful lingering of his predecessor. It may well be that, looking back, the election of the next was made possible only by Benedict’s sudden resignation, acting in his own character in great humility rather than trying to repeat John Paul II’s exemplary teaching on how a Catholic should die.

In worldly, historical terms, this is a crucial moment. Those who look back in satisfaction, at two consecutive “great” popes, and now expect some third to “complete the set,” are fairly certain of disappointment. (I think if one requires a set of three, count in John Paul I.)

We are now entering a new era whether we want it or not. And again, Benedict seems to understand this perfectly, and seemed to be explaining this in his final audience with his clergy in the town of Rome.

Speaking of his experience of Vatican II, he memorably contrasted the “Council of the Fathers” with the “Council of the Media.” The horrors experienced by the Church in the wake of Vatican II, he was suggesting, came from following the Council of the Media, in which questions of faith were crassly translated into questions of power, and an artificial conflict was provoked between “traditional” and “modernizing” factions, within the usual narrative of inevitable “progress.”

Benedict seemed to be saying that this Council of the Media is largely played out, so that the Council of the Fathers comes back into view. The overall project, which long preceded Vatican II, and goes back to Trent and to the Church’s necessary response both to the Reformation and to the “globalization” that began in 1492, continues. It is not something glib, something that came with the 1960s.

The life of Ratzinger/Benedict has corresponded with this era of Vatican II and its wake. He was his predecessor’s theological sheet anchor, as John Paul II boldly acknowledged. Through the papacy of Paul VI, Ratzinger was arguably the most influential sobering force, as the Church sought to cope with the fallout from the Council.

In his own papacy, signal decisions were made to complete what I would call the “restoration of sanity” in Church teaching, liturgy, and administration. The problems were not entirely solved, because they could not be. But the means to the solutions were enacted.

Benedict leaves as the last (and I think, best) of that generation. No one of his age and experience can succeed him. His own firm hand on the tiller must be withdrawn. It is as if the cape has been rounded, and the next steersman confronts a new ocean, and new winds.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Manfred, February 23, 2013
This is a pretty summation Mr. Warren, but both you and Pope Benedict in his address to the Roman Clergy leave out a very important fact: there was so much confusion WITHIN THE CHURCH after the Council that Cdl Law, and others, requested that a CATECHISM be produced so that what the teach taught could be known. In fact it required two editions (the second "fine-tuning" the first) to accomplish this in 1992-1994. Recall that after the Council of Trent which initiated the Counter Reformation, the Roman Catechism was produced and was authoritative until the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. Note that the source for the "Baltimore Catechism" was the Roman Catechism. No, if Cdl Joseph Ratzinger really wanted to correct problems in the Church when he was still fit, he would have taken the name Pius. His two appointments of Prefects for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for example, have been extremely suspect.
written by Grump, February 23, 2013
"The prayers of a pope, in mediation between God and more than a billion living Catholics, cannot be an insignificant part of his office."
Doesn't Scripture say there is only one mediator between man and God -- Jesus Christ?
written by Jacob, February 23, 2013
Brilliant article.

We should reach out to those who are eager to become a part of the Church, but who are now largely ignored in favor of secularist "social justice" projects. (This is the one area in which the Evangelical and some other Protestant churches trump the Church. It's ok if you think it's more noble to come to the Church without being welcomed, but there are those who want to be welcomed and plenty of us who are wasting our time on less noble activities.)

We must pray that Catholics will start once again building cultural bastions for other Catholics, rather than seeking approval from and ministering to the secularists who spend their lives working to destroy the Church.
written by tom, February 23, 2013
'firm hand on the tiller'? An overstatement, I think. Let's hope the next one has more interest in administration, and reforming the Curia.
written by athanasius, February 23, 2013
Let me offer my humble opinion. I think the greatest mystery of our faith is the Incarnation. The eternal Son of God actually took on human flesh and became man, a species lower than the angels. Further, he completely emptied himself by his painful and humiliating death on the cross. All this to invite us to spend eternity with him.

The Church's mission throughout time is to bring the Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen Christ to the world. As early as St. Athanasius (hence my moniker), the Church began to recognize who Jesus really was. This has continued in recent times through PVI with Humanea Vitae, JPII and his Theology of the Body, and BXVI through Deus Caritas and his Jesus of Nazareth writings.

I would think that the next pope would, above all these other things, have to continue to bring the mystery of the Incarnation to the world. The sexual, familial and dignity of life sins of today can be directly attacked by a proper understanding of the Incarnation, and how even in our human sexuality God built part of his message of creation and eternal life.

The Church is the mystical Body of Christ. We are called to be one flesh with our Blessed Lord. When we see how great is the dignity of Christian sexuality and family life, then we will see the profanity of our society's sexual sins. When we see that mass is heaven on earth, a place to enter into Holy Communion with our Lord through the Eucharist, then we will have the strength to journey on through this pilgrimage.

In my humble opinion, that is where the next pope needs to lead the Church.
written by Chris In Maryland, February 23, 2013
Benedict is a Catholic man for the ages, a supreme mind, an unsurpassed teacher, with a gentle heart, an open hand, and a spine of steel.

Thank you for your exquisite tribute to him Mr. Warren, and Amen to Athanasius!

Instead of the esay path of simply dictating that "error has no rights" he has shown the more excellent offer the illuminating reason of The Lord of Love.
written by Mack Hall, February 23, 2013
Oh, Grump, anyone can pray for another; indeed, we are required to do so.
written by Louise, February 24, 2013
Athanasius, may I make a few corrections to your post? The Church recognized Who Jesus was from the moment the Church came into being! It did not start with Athanasius.

Also, we are not called to be one flesh with Jesus. Marriage is the only relationship about which that can be said. We are in a mystical relationship with Christ that is so intimate and complete that there is nothing to perfectly illustrate it on the physical level. Two images have been used - the body with its head and members and marriage but neither is a perfect illustration because it is a mystery of Faith.
written by Ben Horvath, February 24, 2013
I thought Benedict was being very understated, identifying the anti-counsel as the 'Counsel of the Media.' While there is some truth to 'blaming the media' the real activity against the counsel (consisting largely in perverting the meaning of the counsel to gown-ups and refusing to teach the young Catholic truth or traditions) was carried out by people inside the church. The media was and is just one of the tools available to the anti-counsel people to wage their campaign.
written by Graham Combs, February 24, 2013
I found Mr. Warren's perspective reassuring and yet I remain anxious. In this archdiocese at least I seem to casually encounter so many Catholics who want -- demand -- change. Or more change or change more quickly. And insist on depicting Holy Mother Church in veiled implications of sexism and homophobia and other prejudices. And of course this is the author's point about the media and those who embrace and encourage its dessicated and shriveled world view. Thankfully I frequent a parish where the pastor, a monsignor, has continually and especially in recent months reminded parishoners that the the media cannot be trusted because it is not only poorly educated but unchurched. But how many priests speak as he does from the pulpit? I'm afraid I will continue to worry for the Church and pray. And be grateful for prayers of our Holy Father Emeritus.
written by Chris in Maryland, February 25, 2013
I think that the last 2 comments of Ben H and Graham C are very true, and work very well when read together.

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