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.