Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down at the end of this month was a surprise—but not a total surprise. Rumors that the Pope might resign began last summer after the so-called Vatileaks scandal, in which the Pope’s personal attendant was arrested for stealing numerous documents from the Pontiff’s correspondence. The letters revealed infighting among the highest ranks of the Curia. Paolo Gabriele, the “Pope’s butler,” as he has been called, justified his actions by saying that the Holy Father was insufficiently aware of the less-than-holy things being done in his name. The fact of the leaks and their contents suggested that the elderly German Pope was not in full control of either his household or the complex and powerful institution he was heading. But the rumors of Benedict’s possible resignation seemed to many like wishful thinking on the part of those who wished for a different kind of Pope. When Benedict took a number of decisive steps to restore order within the Vatican ranks, the rumors died down. Tuesday’s sudden announcement came during a papal consistory in which he had seemed in full control, despite the obvious (but not particularly remarkable) toll of his eighty-five years.
And yet, the decision is stunning, and unprecedented in modern times. The last Pope to resign was Gregory XII, in 1415, and that was during a time of extreme turmoil—of Popes and anti-Popes—in which the Church was looking to break a standoff between three contenders to the throne of Saint Peter. Before that, in 1294, was the case of Celestine V, a highly religious hermit who was made Pope against his own wishes, and who hated the job. Celestine was immortalized by Dante as colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto (“who by his cowardice made the big refusal”). Dante faulted Celestine for giving in to the pressure of the ambitious cardinal Benedetto Caetani, his successor, who then became Boniface VIII and whom Dante placed in one of the lowest circles of his Inferno. Boniface feuded with the King of France, leading to his own arrest and to the move of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, although the reason Dante gave for his placement in the eighth circle of Hell was simony, the sin of selling religious offices for money.
Benedict XVI’s decision to resign, however, is likely to be seen as a sign of considerable modernity. Despite these distant exceptions of Popes resigning almost at sword point, it has been a long-standing tradition that the Pope dies in office. Toward the end of his twenty-eight-year reign, Pope John Paul II was in considerably worse health than the current Pope. He suffered markedly from Parkinson’s disease, and quite visibly struggled to carry out the tasks of his office, often fighting to hold up his head during public ceremonies. His obvious incapacity became part of his magisterium: many spoke of the Pope’s own “Calvary,” a modern-day imitatio Christi in which his public suffering was a contemporary Stations of the Cross, an example of the extreme relevance of the Christian message to everyday life. The value of this spiritual lesson was seen as outweighing the practical drawback of a Pope who was far less able to attend to the routine business of running a church with 1.2 billion adherents. By stressing a sense of “responsibility” toward the Church, Benedict XVI is acting more like the modern manager of a large, complex institution. The Vatican, in addition to being the throne of Saint Peter, is a modern state with a tiny territory in Rome but with as many citizens as present-day China, and with churches, congregations, and a diplomatic presence in virtually every nation in the world.
As if speaking to the different choice of John Paul II, Benedict said, in his statement to the assembled cardinals:
I am well aware that this ministry, because of its spiritual essence, must be carried out not just with deeds and words, but no less with suffering and prayer. Nonetheless, in today’s world, subject to rapid changes and shaken by questions of great importance for the life of faith, in order to govern the ship of Saint Peter and announce the Gospel, it is necessary to have a certain vigor of body and soul, vigor, which in recent months, has diminished, forcing me to recognize my incapacity to administer well the ministry that has been entrusted to me.
While there is likely to be a proliferation of conspiracy theories about Benedict XVI’s resignation, it is altogether plausible to take the Pope’s words at face value—to believe that the Pope is making a clear-eyed decision based on a desire to spare the Church, and himself, the full cost of what may be a long, slow decline toward death.
Predictably, for an institution in which one is expected to die in office, there is a long tradition of electing elderly Popes. Ambitious younger cardinals have sometimes pushed the candidacy of this or that septuagenarian in the hope of occupying the throne of Saint Peter in a few years’ time. Electing a young and vigorous Pope who governs for an entire generation—as in the case of Karol Wojtyla, who was fifty-eight when he became John Paul II—carries a considerable risk: that of allowing a hugely important and highly diverse planetary institution to gradually bear the personal stamp of one man. The election of Benedict XVI, then Joseph Ratzinger, at age seventy-eight, expressed a desire for continuing the Wojtyla legacy (since Ratzinger had been one of John Paul II’s key advisers), as well as a wish to avoid another twenty-eight-year papacy. And yet, his brief and often controversial reign shows the risks of electing as Pope an elderly man more than ten years past the normal age of retirement.
Seen in this light, Benedict’s decision to step down may suggest an effort at finding a third way. By setting a precedent for papal resignation, it offers the possibility of choosing someone closer to the prime of life who may not need to reign into full senescence.
It may also reflect a surprising, even uncharacteristic, humility on Benedict’s part, a sober acknowledgement that things have not always gone as they should have on his watch. Soon after becoming Pope, Benedict gave a theological talk in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor making a scathing criticism of Islam: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Journalists who saw the speech in advance warned the Vatican about the effect of this phrase. But the Pope went ahead with his talk, with predictably disastrous results for Christian-Muslim relations.
Similarly, in early 2009, Benedict lifted the excommunication of the right-wing Catholic followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, only to see Richard Williamson, one of the bishops being brought back into the fold, give a television interview in which he denied the reality of the Holocaust. A simple Google search would have revealed Williamson’s offensive views on this and many other topics.
On close inspection, Benedict’s papal teachings were kinder and gentler than those of his beloved predecessor. For example, John Paul II made it all but impossible for men who left the priesthood to remain Catholics in good standing; Benedict quietly reversed that. But he was not particularly good at communicating his positions. American diplomats complained—in memos released by Wikileaks—that the Vatican seemed increasingly like a walled-off gerontocracy, and that the only person who seemed to have a BlackBerry was the papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who often learned of important papal decisions only after the fact.
Although most of the most notorious cases of pedophile priests occurred on the watch of earlier Popes (albeit with Ratzinger in a position of major responsibility), and Pope Benedict took far more vigorous steps to clean up the mess, it was he who felt most of the public-relations fallout.
Karol Wojtyla had been a talented actor in his youth, and as Pope he was a master of the dominant medium of his time, television. He and his spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, were brilliant at offering up images of the Pontiff on his endless travels, blessing the faithful and kissing children before throngs of wildly enthusiastic followers from Mexico to Africa and the Philippines. He conveyed the image of a Pope who was both deeply human and a supreme sovereign, whose firm utterances were the final word on matters of faith and doctrine. Journalists who questioned this story line suddenly found it hard to get a place on the papal plane, and lost access to those fabulous moments. Benedict, a less charismatic man with less energy for travel, inherited a different media landscape. Suddenly, he had to contend with a host of Web sites publishing Vatican scuttlebutt, with names like “Vatican Insider” and “Whispers in the Loggia.” Information on the Internet was almost impossible to control, and Benedict regularly found himself a step behind the news. In an odd recognition of changing times, Benedict began using Twitter in recent months, though seemingly without a taste for the medium.
Last year’s Vatileaks scandal gave the impression of an institution adrift. The Church cannot afford to remain in such a state in a time of transformation, and it may have been in a rare act of self-awareness and responsibility that Benedict XVI understood that. Taking over the Church when he was close to eighty, Benedict seemed surprised by events and by the controversy his actions could provoke. For seven years, he has been unable to hit the right note. Perhaps, with his resignation, he has finally done so.
Published at The New Yorker
Photograph by Franco Origlia/Getty.