My profound admiration for the person of Pope Benedict XVI, appreciation for his eight years as pontiff, and esteem for the Petrine ministry are real, deep, and profound. I am grateful to this Pope for so many things. I do not question for a moment that he has made his decision with nothing but the best interests of the Church first and foremost in his mind. Even with all that, I wish to make some observations about this prudential decision, a decision I find very problematic.
These observations are not equal weight or merit, have they any weight or merit at all. They are merely some of my thoughts on the matter.
Accepting the Papacy is fundamentally different from accepting any other Episcopal function, there has been no expectation of retirement or replacement. That this is considered a lifetime appointment has been clear to every Pope for 600 years (and a better part of the 1400 that came before that) and similarly that lifetime tenure was the expectation of the cardinal-electors that chose him. Accepting it, with that understood tradition, should be done without any mental reservation. Accepting the Papacy with the unspoken idea that you can do this for a while and then hand it over to someone else, even if canonically licit is nonetheless a complete break with long-standing tradition and seems, at a minimum, to be rightly considered mental reservation.
Breaking the tradition that Popes die in office will have consequences. This is a truism. There is no way that Pope Benedict, no matter how wise, can see all the implications and effects of his decision. Within days of the resignation, he made statements criticizing factions and corruption within the Church as well as an admonition to the press to stop trying to influence the conclave. I ask you sincerely, with all these admitted pressures on the Pope, is it reasonable to surmise that adding the potential for Papal resignation to the mix will increase this strife among internal factions and external influences? I think the only honest answer is yes.
It seems to me that if the cardinal-electors thought that youth and vigor were the paramount prerequisites for the Petrine ministry, they would not have selected a 78 year old man. So why did the Pope, in his February 11th announcement say “in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” So not only did he break precedent, he set a dangerous new one that seemingly rejects the wisdom of the conclave and the wisdom of his predecessors.
Does this precedent increase the likelihood that a future Pontiff will resign due to these pressures? I think so. Is that a benefit to the Church? I think not.
I must admit that seeing so many leaders of the world, the same leaders who routinely promote those things most repugnant to Christ and His Church as good, leaders who would like nothing more than the demise of the Church, offering such effusive praise of the Pope’s decision as humble and free, only increases my apprehension.
Lastly, the Popes have remained Popes until death is great sign, counter to the culture, that God and his Church value something greater than what the world values. In a culture that already idolizes youth and vigor, a culture that increasingly devalues even to the point of death those who do not resemble this fleeting idol, being Pope til death was a great sign to the world. I worry that once again the Church is becoming more like the world than the other way around.
I love Pope Benedict dearly and I hope I am wrong on all counts, but I don’t think I will be.
Note–Please feel free to disagree with me on any or all of what I say above. I hope you are right and I am wrong. But please refrain from telling me I have no right to say it. Comments to this effect may be deleted, so do not bother.