Papal resignation shock

A photo I took of Pope Benedict XVI in the Melkite Cathedral in Amman, 2009
When John Lennon was shot I was on interview for university, sat in the student common room. It was one of those truly shocking events that leave you grasping for an idea which can make sense of this sudden ground shift. Today I was in the bank, stood in the queue waiting to make a deposit when I noticed the rolling news channel on the screen above the tellers station giving the 'breaking news'. It was a literal double take.

OK, so let's plot out the situation:
1. First abdication since the 13th century on the grounds of age/ill health and not on the basis of coercion.
2. He is not mentally incapacitated, but gives the reason for his standing down as having lost the physical capacity to deal with the demands of the papal office in a rapidly changing and demanding world.
3. The secrecy was absolute and very impressive giving the degree of leaks in recent years from the papal household.
4. There was no suggestion from any section of the Church or media that he should or was considering resigning.

Pope Benedict observed closely the decline of his predecessor, and the terrible toll that took on John Paul II, an endurance which he saw as heroic. But he also had to deal with the consequences of a pope rapidly declining to the point where he could not handle the demands of the office without relying increasingly on those around him. He was one of those to whom much of that responsibility fell.  He must also have been aware of the destabilising voices which demanded that JPII resign, and the energy that was taken in trying to balance those voices. He is also German, and pragmatic, as evidenced by his nuanced acceptance of condoms possibly moderating evil. Despite his conservative reputation, he was quite able to cut new furrows, of which this is a classic example. It is a classic example of his independence of thought despite his great reverence and respect for tradition.

However, while this will avoid the dissipation of the Vatican during a period of increasingly incapacity at 'the top', the lack of any sort of hint of a move and without the positioning which the gradual move towards the end of a pontificate brings, it leaves the situation volatile and wide open as far as his successor is concerned. There is no obvious successor, and the Curia is notoriously politicised with tensions between senior cardinals. This is a dangerous situation now that Benedict has plunged the leadership of the Church into an unforeseen power vacuum. One can almost hear the rustle of scarlet cassocks as the princes of the church scurry about in a state of suppressed panic. So much is suddenly at stake, and as no one seems to have seen this coming, the temptation to misread signs and situations is more than likely. 

Pope Benedict has enabled the Church to move on from the magisterial pontificate of JPII, that in itself would have been a massive achievement. The shadow of that great pope no longer seems so intense and overbearing. But he has done more by quietly but insistently changing the colour of the backdrop of ordinary Catholic life. Liturgically the normalisation of the place of the traditional Latin Mass has had a growing impact, not least in fostering a the liturgical conservatism among young seminarians and priests, and a calming of the more outrageous modernised liturgies. In the English speaking world this has been coupled with, finally, the publication of a modified translation where some of the richness of the original Latin text has been restored. Yet, on the other end of things, his nuanced but nevertheless repeated acceptance of condoms, all be it in very limited ways, shifted the Magisterium away from its previously absolute position on one of its totem subjects.  Likewise, his creation of the Ordinariate, while somewhat bizarre nevertheless showed his ability not just to think but also to act creatively, in ways that have had a direct impact on Catholic life as lived at the most ordinary of levels. In all this he has been very far from an autocratic, aloof, professor and much more of a direct, universal pastor. 

His emphasis has been away from the philosophical approach of JPII, with its attempts to reach beyond the Church to all people of goodwill, to an intelligent theology address to those within the Church, perhaps giving the Catholic community a clearer sense of itself but with a growing incomprehension from those beyond it. And of course, the clerical abuse of children has added a certain bitter poison to that, which the rather hectoring and insistent emphasis on opposition to homosexuality has made an explosive cocktail that his successor will need great skill in managing if the position of the Church is to be rescued from the growing hostility of a world rapidly moving towards an aggressive secularism. 

On the personal level, while JPII left some very large shoes to step into, with his many, many abilities, Benedict has succeeded by being very simple and humble. While accepting his office with gravitas and respect, he nevertheless has remained very human and approachable. He single handedly won over the viciously hostile British media once they saw him rather than the caricature others had created of him and which sometimes arose from how he would write. I saw for myself how, after a long, demanding week in the Holy Land, he touched people at the refugee camp outside Bethlehem. He was tired, exhausted but simply continued to give himself generously and without pretension. He never came across as a great and mighty prince, but as someone who just had a very important job to do with no illusions about his abilities and lack of them. He was never a man of hubris and pretension which is why I think people will look very affectionately at his short pontificate and value the way in which he moved the papacy on from the imperial model which was still a potent one under JPII.


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