I have been ruminating on the abdication of Benedict all week, as I am sure many of you have. In this very brief time, I have noticed a certain theme has come to the fore in most of the public discussion in Catholic publications and blogs on these remarkable events. With the last papal resignation in 1415, it is understandable that Catholics would seek to put these events into some sort of context and try to make sense of these developments. This article represents my attempt at doing so, and I apologize up-front for its lengthiness.
As we have all groped about looking for understanding, praying, and discussing these things with our brethren, it seems that a certain accepted way of thinking about the abdication has come forward. An official narrative has emerged, and it did not take long. I'd say probably within the third day after the announcement the narrative was fully in place and being trumpeted aloud from all of the major Catholic commentators.
A narrative is not a bad thing; coming up with canonical narratives of historical events are usually the way we try to make sense out of situations that are confusing, disappointing, traumatic or don't fit neatly into our worldview. Please note, a narrative is not necessarily false; saying that a narrative of Pope Benedict XVI's abdication has emerged does not mean that the facts are being denied or anything is being omitted. A narrative does not mean facts are being obscured - it means we have (a) opted for a specific way to understand what the facts mean, and therefore (b) we have assimilated the events into our preexisting worldview in a way logically consistent with it.
Therefore, the official narrative of Benedict's abdication represents a certain way of understanding these events that reinforces certain preconceived notions about the papacy, the prudential decisions of popes, the church in the modern world, etc. While this narrative is not necessarily wrong (it is just one way of looking at things), I want to point out some inconsistencies I see in it while things are still fresh, before this narrative solidifies and becomes the "official history" of what happened, which will occur inevitably. I think it is important that we have some honest discussion about this whole issue, because very soon there will only be one politically correct way of looking at the abdication of Benedict XVI, and that is what is being shaped right now as the official narrative emerges and gains widespread acceptance.
So, what is this emerging narrative of the pope's abdication? There are four reoccurring points that I am seeing in articles, websites, parish bulletins and even one on one discussion that I believe constitute the Benedict narrative:
1. Not Unprecedented: Everyone who is commenting on this seems to go to great lengths to point out that this is not unprecedented and that papal resignations have happened in the past, the last being approximately 600 years ago. The implication is that even if a papal abdication hasn't happened recently, really this is nothing new. This point concerns the legal justification for the pope doing what he did.
2. Humble Benedict: The second point has to do with the personal or moral justification for Benedict's abdication, and focuses on the praiseworthy nature of the act. Thus it is said that this was a tremendously humble thing for Benedict to do, because it is humble to know when someone else can do your job better than you, or to know when you can no longer do it.
3. What JP2 and BXVI Taught Us: Every commentator has to grapple with the issue of Benedict's resignation for reasons of health in light John Paul II's refusal to resign because of health, for which the former pontiff was praised immensely. This issue is resolved by stating that the seemingly contrary actions of the popes are each meant to teach us different lessons; John Paul II's long death taught the world about suffering, and Benedict's abdication is a lesson in humility. This could be looked at as the pedagogical justification for Benedict's resignation, focusing on what admirable lesson the faithful can take away from this historic event.
4. Inevitability: Finally, many commentators are saying that, in hindsight, this was a very "logical" decision by the pope and that in a way it was almost inevitable. This is just a way to make the whole thing "fit" into a worldview of how the popes are expected to act.
As I said above, this narrative is not false; it is one way of looking at Benedict's departure. But even so, I do believe it is deficient in a few ways and it does not take in to account several important points.
For example, take the assertion that this is not unprecedented. One parish bulletin I picked up had an article on the subject that said "Popes have resigned several times in the history of the Church." Well, it is true that a papal resignation is not unprecedented, but it is a bit much to say this has happened "several times." A few popes in the latter patristic era were forcibly deposed by persecuting emperors and subsequently accepted their deposition as a fact so the Roman Church could elect another bishop and move on, but these can hardly be called voluntary papal abdications. Pope John XVIII (1003-1009) may have abdicated, but the evidence is very unclear. Benedict IX resigned the papacy for money in 1045 but then declared his resignation invalid and tried to take the papacy back. The only real voluntary resignations I know of were those of Celestine V and Gregory IX, and it is speculated that Celestine resigned under pressure from Cardinal Gaetani, later Boniface VIII. Gregory, of course, resigned to end a schism.
Celestine's case is interesting because there is a question of how free it truly was. Most believe Celestine did resign freely, and interestingly enough, at the time, despite the precedents of forced depositions, theologians of the day treated Celestine's resignation as unprecedented and had lively debates over whether a Roman pontiff could, in fact, resign. The issue was so controversial that Boniface VIII had to issue an authoritative declaration after the fact teaching that such a course of action was acceptable. He wrote:
"Whereas some curious persons, arguing on things of no great expediency, and rashly seeking, against the teaching of the Apostle, to know more than it is meet to know, have seemed, with little forethought, to raise an anxious doubt, whether the Roman Pontiff, especially when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, can validly renounce the papacy, and its burden and honour: Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, whilst still presiding over the government of the aforesaid Church, wishing to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, having deliberated with his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign. We, therefore, lest it should happen that in course of time this enactment should fall into oblivion, and the aforesaid doubt should revive the discussion, have placed it among other constitutions ad perpetuam rei memoriam by the advice of our brethren." (Decree, "Liber Sextus" I, vii, 1).
Boniface notes that it was none other than Celestine himself who had first instituted the law, by his "authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign." Some questions arise:
If there was a long tradition of popes resigning, as some are now asserting, why did Celestine V need to establish a law specifically allowing popes to resign? Why did Celestine's contemporaries regard him as the first pope to resign if there were examples of late patristic popes being forced to abdicate? If there was a well-established precedent in 1295 that popes could resign, why did Boniface VIII feel the need to issue a clarification on the issue?
The obvious answer is that the forced depositions were not regarded as resignations. Pope Celestine V was therefore regarded as the first pope who had ever resigned. This precedent laid the groundwork for the very carefully orchestrated resignation of Gregory XII in 1415, which brought about the end of the Great Schism.
So it cannot be said that popes have resigned "several times"; two popes have resigned. Where does that put Benedict XVI? Well, again, it depends on what you mean by "precedent." Does precedent exist? Yes, if you consider 2 out of 266 to be precedent (by the way, that is 0.7% of our pontiffs; not even 1%). Is 0.7% substantial enough to be considered "precedent?" Would a new interpretation of a law be upheld in court if similar rulings were only issued in 0.7% of preceding cases? When we talk about the precedents for Benedict's resignation, we are really being generous and flexible with the word precedent.
Furthermore, consider that though there certainly is precedent for a pope abdicating, but there is absolutely no precedent for a pope abdicating for reasons of health. If we are just looking at the fact of a papal abdication, then sure, there are precedents; but if we ask, "Has any pope ever abdicated for reasons of health?" then the answer is clearly no. Benedict's resignation is unprecedented in that sense.
What about the second claim in the narrative, that this was an extraordinary humble thing to do because it is humility to know when one can do the job better or know when you cannot do the job?
This statement of it being humility to step aside if you know someone else can do the job better than you is frankly the silliest part of the narrative. According to long-standing tradition and many anecdotal tales, the vast majority of the popes, mostly humble men, all upon election protest that they are not worthy, that others could invariably do the job better than they. If we say Benedict resigned because he believed someone else could do the job better than he, than there is no reason why every single pope in history shouldn't have resigned, for almost all have similarly protested that others could do the job better - including St. Peter, who said, "Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8). Every pope, bishop and priest feels his inadequacy. But they do not resign. They remember that "My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). Perceived weakness or lack of ability has never been justification for someone to step out of apostolic labor, not in the days of Moses ("O Lord, please send someone else" -Ex. 4:13), not in the days of Peter, nor of Paul, nor ever, for the Lord Himself uses this weakness as a blank canvas upon which to work His marvels.
Beside, just as a simple fact of life, statistically speaking, there is always someone out there who can do a job better than you. But God never asks us to be the best at doing things, only to do things the best that we can. God is more interested than what we have than in what we don't. "For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not" (2 Cor. 8:12).
Away then with this excuse that humility dictates that we step aside as soon as someone appears who can do the job better. Benedict himself did not offer this justification for his actions, so let us not add our own silly reasoning to the pope's.
The second part of the "Humble Benedict" explanation has a little more merit: that it is humble to step aside if one can no longer bear the burdens of the office. This I grant. Boniface VIII's declaration said as much when he stated that it was fitting for a pope to resign "especially when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the
Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, [and]
can validly renounce the papacy, and its burden and honor."
No qualms about this. If the pope simply physically cannot do the job, then it is certainly permissible for him to step aside. I do not question the principle, but I question its application: what does, in Benedict's own words from his statement of abdication, "adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry" mean? Why in "today's world" is a specific strength of "mind and body" necessary that is fundamentally different from that strength that was necessary to the popes of old? In other words, what is the standard of an "adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry" that Benedict has in his mind that he feels he cannot live up to?
We have no way of knowing this, because the pope did not feel like explaining it. I have wondered if it has something to do with filling the shoes of John Paul II. If so, this would be regrettable; I certainly hope that Pope Benedict does not feel that he has to be as active and dynamic as John Paul II was in the first years of his pontificate. John Paul II's pontificate was a lot of firsts, but his deeds do not need to be replicated by all subsequent popes. It is not as if John Paul II so defined the modern papacy that everything that follows must be in the same vein. I understand that JPII was a big act to follow, but let us remember that the pope possesses what the medieval canonists called plenitudo potestatis, the fullness of power over how the Church is governed. Benedict need not fit any mold or follow in any footsteps whatsoever. He is free to determine his own course, to continue traditions started by John Paul II, to suspend them, or discard them.
To illustrate my point, let us flesh out an alternate history. Say Benedict did not announce his abdication last Monday. Let's say he decides to stay on until death. But, knowing he is frail and in poor health, he decides to make some changes. So, he announces the following changes to take effect immediately and for the duration of his papacy, due to ill health:
- The pope will not make any more international trips.
- There will be no more World Youth Days for the duration of the pontificate.
- Do not expect any more encyclicals.
- Wednesday audiences are cancelled indefinitely.
- The pope will not preside over any more public liturgies.
- The pope will in fact not make any public appearances at all.
- There will be no more "Year of This or That" for the remainder of the pontificate.
- The pope will not make any more tweets.
- Finally, should the pope lose his wits or become too ill to function, he will appoint a Cardinal to delegate solely specific administrative duties to so that the business of the Vatican can move along even if the pope himself is ill.
Then, having effectively cancelled everything, the pope lives a life of seclusion and rest at the Vatican, reading, studying, praying and preparing for death, but while remaining pope. Why not? Many other popes have ended their days in such a fashion. Why would this be such a problem? Well, the reason it would be a problem is that everything listed above is what the modern world and even many Catholics have come to identify with the papacy. A pope who is in seclusion and can't show up at World Youth Days or travel abroad isn't very likeable, and some figure that if the pope can't do those things, he might as well step aside.
As I said above, I don't know if these are the sorts of things Benedict is thinking of when he says he can no longer exercise the Petrine ministry, but I hope it isn't the case, because the fact remains that he is the pope, and he can take on as much or as little as he wants to, and we ought not to think that John Paul II's early years defined the modern papacy for all subsequent popes.
Finally, let's move on to what I have called the pedagogical justification for the abdication - the notion that both the refusal of John Paul II to abdicate for health reasons and the abdication of Benedict XVI for health reasons are somehow equally appropriate because of what they taught us: John Paul II's long death taught the world about suffering, and Benedict's abdication is a lesson in humility.
I have really been grappling with this one, and I understand where folks are coming from who keep repeating this, but it doesn't sit right with me. Bear with me as I walk you through my thinking here.
Let's begin with one thing we can all agree on: If any pope would have been justified in resigning because of health problems, it would have been John Paul II. His last few years were especially agonizing; I was privileged to get to see John Paul II in person at a Wednesday audience a year and a half before he died, and my goodness, he looked horrible - a frail, hunched, sagging shell of man with barely enough energy to lift his own head; Cardinals reading canned statements while the pope just sat there oblivious. Had John Paul II announced his resignation any time during those last few years, I do not think anyone would have blamed him. We probably would have applauded him as many are applauding Benedict now.
But John Paul II did not resign. He stayed on, endured a very horrific and public period of suffering, and finally died. And you know what? We all praised him for staying the course. We all knew that what we were witnessing was true heroism, as Samwise says, "folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't." We lauded John Paul II for how he "taught us how to die" and how it was good for him not to resign though the whole world wanted him to and though his health would have justified it. His demise at the same time as the Terri Schiavo fiasco lent special weight to these sentiments. We all praised him for his decision to face death, and not only face it bravely, but face it bravely as pope, because we all felt the world was learning a lesson it desperately needed through it.
In other words, John Paul II had two choices before him: abdicate or stay on. He chose to stay on, and in praising him so extravagantly for staying on, we imply that abdicating would have been a lesser choice. It might not have been sinful or wrong, but it would have been less heroic, less appropriate for a pontiff, and ultimately less morally excellent as staying on and suffering. When we praise John Paul II for going out the way he did, we are implying that his choice was the better choice for a pope to make.
So, as of 2005, we all agreed that given an ill pope, it was better for him to stay on and serve till the end in order to show the world how to embrace suffering. And that was what we all agreed upon universally...until around 6:30am on the morning of Monday, February 11th, 2013 when it was announced that Benedict XVI was stepping down for the same reasons that John Paul II refused to step down.
Now what? The narrative has been shaken and needs to readjust itself. What do we say now? We are no longer at war with East Asia; we are now at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia. Get my point?
Now, we can say that Benedict's resignation is totally different in substance, but the only reason we can come up for why it is different is because of what it taught
us. Benedict taught us humility, because of the somewhat convoluted reasons mentioned above. But are two similar acts substantially different because we get different "lessons" out of them? Some are trying to make the cases of JPII and BXVI so different that we really can't compare them, as if we were trying to compare the resignation of Cornelius Sulla to the abdication of Edward VIII, or the abdication of Diocletian with the resignation of Richard Nixon.
But we are not
comparing apples and oranges here. In fact, I can't think of two men whose cases are so strikingly similar. Two popes; successive
popes, in fact. Both raised under Nazi oppression. Both participants at Vatican II. Both unexpectedly elevated to the papacy. Both unpopular with the world, both pressured at times to resign, both dealing with crippling health problems, both shouldering similar responsibilities and responding to similar crises in the Church, both of similar age when they resigned/died...so very similar cases in so many ways. Yet one, when facing illness, resigns and the other doesn't, and we have to pretend that they are both equally praiseworthy acts, when in 2005 we had pretty much established that staying on and suffering was much better than resigning? Now in 2013 we change our minds in three days time and try to convince ourselves that the situation of Benedict XVI (which is materially no different than the situation of John Paul II, as illustrated above) is in fact totally
different, and that while John Paul II chose the more excellent course by not resigning, Benedict XVI has chosen the more excellent course by doing the exact opposite of what John Paul II did!
But perhaps we are viewing these two events too closely when we should be looking at them as two, distinct events that really have no relation to one another. This might be plausible, except that Benedict XVI himself has cited the example of John Paul's suffering as precisely what he would try to avoid
by an abdication. In other words, Benedict's decision to abdicate was directly related to John Paul II's decision not to abdicate
. This complicates things, because if the whole Church pretty much adopted the line that JPII was right not
to abdicate, Benedict XVI himself seems to have dissented from that. Having an inside view of the late pontificate of John Paul II, perhaps Benedict thought that a long, drawn out death was not as ideal as we all thought, and thus he seems to disagree with us that John Paul II made the most morally excellent choice. Benedict would never say that publicly, of course, but what else does he imply when he says that he would not put himself and the Church through what John Paul II did? Benedict thus makes an argument that abdication is the better choice, and he does this based on an appeal to the experience with John Paul II.
No matter how much I think of this, it seems like we are dealing with contradictions here. If person A does action X instead of action Y, and we all say, "Wow! It is so much better that A did X instead of Y," and then later person B, who holds the exact same office, duties, responsibilities as A, instead chooses to do Y instead of X, how can we now say that B/Y is the better choice when we formerly said A/X was the better choice, especially when person B says, "I chose Y precisely because
I saw what happened when A chose X and I didn't want that to happen"? All things being equal (and in this scenario, they are
substantially equal), if A/X was praiseworthy, then B/Y is not as much so; if B/Y is praiseworthy, then A/X is not as much so.
I am beating this point into the ground, but I think it is important to discuss. The fact that the narrative even tries to reconcile the acts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is evidence that this is a real conundrum - but it is only so because we insist not only on loving and obeying the popes, but on affirming every prudential decision they do as good, even claiming they are the best
possible decisions. When we adopt such an unrealistic attitude, we find ourselves in the absurd position of having to affirm each act of a pope as heroically virtuous and as the best possible act even if it directly contradicts what we previously agreed was the best possible course of action for a pope.
This leads us into that final aspect of the narrative - the commentators who are all tapping themselves on the chests and saying, "In retrospect, it's not surprising he resigned; it was kind of inevitable even." Please! Not one of these folks had any inclination when they went to bed last Sunday night that they'd hear the pope resigned in the morning. Had Benedict stayed in till the day he died, they would have said, 'It's inevitable that he did this, seeing the example left by John Paul II." Inevitable!? Please. How was it inevitable? Because Benedict mentioned it as a hypothetical scenario once? Because he prayed at the tomb of Celestine V twice in eight years? It's like saying it is inevitable that I am going to die by getting tortured and bludgeoned by natives somewhere because I once visited the shrine of the North American Martyrs. I'm sorry, but we can
put a probability to this: 0.7%, as I mentioned above. When there is only a 0.7% chance something will happen, you will forgive me if I show disbelief when you tell me it was inevitable?
This "Benedict's resignation was inevitable" stuff is just a way to make the whole event fit neatly into a preconceived notion of how modern popes are supposed to act - and to make the papal commentators feel good about something that took them completely by surprise. "Of course Benedict resigned! Anyone who follows the papacy like I do could have seen this coming from a mile away..." This is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the musical hipster who takes delight in talking about bands "you've probably never heard of." Enough already.
The official narrative exists because Catholics are trying to digest this bizarre news and fit it neatly into their schema of how the Church and divine providence work and how we ought to relate to them. The narrative is valuable in that it fulfills this function. I do not think it does this in the most intellectually honest way, but neither do I think it is an outright falsehood; it is simply an interpretation. So, after all that, I do not tear down those who propose the official narrative, nor do I ultimately say Benedict was wrong to abdicate. But if I have spent so much time poking holes in the narrative, I suppose it behooves me to answer the question, "What ought we to think, then? What should we feel about Benedict's abdication?"
Here is what I think, and I base this on a conversation I had about this with a friend from the Poor Knights of Christ
It is what it is.
Benedict has abdicated. He may have had very good reasons for doing so, and indeed, he might have even been right for doing so. I trust him entirely, and I trust his judgment completely. But we are ultimately dealing with the prudential judgment of a very fallible human being. There is absolutely no warrant for tearing Benedict down for his decision or calling into question his motives, but neither is there any necessity for pretending like this was an extraordinarily clever strategic move, an act of heroic virtue, or some kind of obvious evidence of sanctity.
Ultimately, Benedict has decided to join a very, very small group of popes (0.7%) who have resigned voluntarily, and while the fact of resignation isn't unprecedented, Benedict's resignation for purposes of health is absolutely and completely unprecedented - and that is okay, because he is the pope and has the plenitudo potestatis
. He can resign if he wants to, precedented or not. It is within his legal and moral right to do so, and we don't have to layer his decision with extra coatings of virtue to sanctify it for him, as with all this nonsense about getting out of the way if someone can do something better than you, etc. There is no lesson for us here in that sense. This was not meant by the pope to be a teachable moment, and we don't need to grope around to try to find some "lessons" to take away, especially by tortuously trying to force the admittedly contradictory actions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI onto some seamless garment in order to somehow heap praise on their contradictory actions. While Benedict is certainly justified in taking this course of action, I would ultimately say that his abdication is probably a less morally excellent act than John Paul II's example - and that's fine to say that, because I feel under no compulsion to insist that every action every pope does is the best possible action.
John Paul II made a heroic decision; whether or not that was good for the Church, history will have to judge. Benedict made a decision that probably was not as heroic, but may be better for the Church in the long run; maybe Benedict's resignation will set a precedent that will not be good, maybe it won't; maybe John Paul II should have resigned earlier so someone with more alertness could handle various crises; then again, maybe not. We simply don't know. The ultimate legacies of these last two pontificates are decades away from being satisfactorily evaluated, and until that day comes, there is no compulsion for us to make more out of something than it is. Pray for the Church and the Holy Father, both the one going out and the one to come. Do penance. Amend your life. Pray, pray for the Church and leave the rest to God.
Other than that, it is what it is. If you think we need more intelligent conversation about this issue and less talking points, then please forward this article to others.