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Papal resignation launches Church into uncharted waters, Minnesota's Vatican watchers say

Pope Benedict XVI
CC/Flickr/Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Although no pope has stepped down in six centuries, the explanation Benedict gave for his decision suggests they may now routinely retire.

Calling Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign unprecedented, Minnesota Vatican-watchers said Monday that leaders of the Roman Catholic Church will confront any number of historic decisions in coming weeks and months.

“We are in almost uncharted territory,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas whose field of expertise is Vatican history. Although no pope has stepped down in six centuries, the explanation Benedict gave for his decision suggests they may now routinely retire.   

“When Pope John Paul II died eight years ago, everyone praised him for his courage in being pope even while he was ill,” said Faggioli. “Now it’s much more likely his successors will resign.”

With Benedict’s health visibly declining in the last two years, his decision comes at a time when the Church faces mounting challenges that include a secretive financial system that is complicating its relationship to the European Union, a recent scandal involving the leak of secret Vatican documents that are alleged to point to corruption and mounting evidence concerning the extent of the sex abuse scandal.

The pope two years ago said he would take seriously the idea of resigning if the decline continued, said Dr. Don Briel, director of St. Thomas’ Center for Catholic Studies and the former chair of the Theology Department. “There had been speculation increasing in the last six months that this might occur,” he said.    

“In today’s world,” Benedict said Monday, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” 

Faggioli was particularly struck by one sentence in the original Latin phrasing of Benedict’s announcement in which the pope makes reference to a document published in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Spelling out ingravscentem ietatem, or “the burden of age,” the document says bishops must submit their resignation at the age of 75, and at 80 every cardinal serving in the Roman Curia has to resign and cannot participate in the next conclave, the gathering where the pope is elected.

Benedict, Faggioli explained, “is sending a message that this rule so far has been applied to everyone except the pope. So [he is saying] I now accept this for my office.”

The significance, he added, goes far beyond changing the protocol for how the papacy changes hands to position the office in a different light. Rather than a position of power, it can now be seen as one of service, observers note.

“It’s admirable, in that sense,” said Faggioli. “If you cannot do your service, you should resign.”

The last papal resignation, which occurred in the Middle Ages, resolved a schism in the church caused when cardinals in France and Spain elected two different popes.

“But in the Middle Ages, being pope was not a thing that had to do with religion,” said Faggioli. “It was a kingdom. So the papacy was like electing a new emperor in Europe.

“In the Middle Ages the church was a European thing,” he added. “Now it’s global, so it’s much more complicated, the passage of this pontificate.”

By definition, the decisions about what comes next will be groundbreaking. And the presence of a former pope or pope emeritus whose status has yet to be determined, will almost certainly complicate the papacy of his successor.

In the past, “the new pope always has to establish his footprint knowing his predecessor is dead,” said Faggioli. “It gives him much more freedom.”

In his statement to a gathering of cardinals at the Vatican Monday morning, Benedict said he would spend the rest of his life in prayer and would not participate in the selection of the new pope. He did, however, appoint a majority of the cardinals who will vote in March.

“That’s a big shadow on the conclave,” said Faggioli. “Pope Benedict will not be present in that room, but his presence will be felt.”

Briel cautions against the temptation to look at the selection of a successor as ideological. “People tend to look at the conclave in political terms,” he said. “But these are unpredictable. The cardinals will try to identify that man who can best bring the church into the challenges and the opportunities of the day.”

The new pope, he said, must be one who can speak to the church universally: “There is the sense that this is God’s church, not the cardinals’.”

Now 85, Benedict was 78 at his election in 2005, making him the oldest pope elected since 1730, Briel said. “It was expected this would be a relatively short pontificate,” he said. “He has simply grown weary.”

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Comments (3)

They May Want to Claim it as "God's Church"

But both John Paul and Benedict chose only the MOST conservative candidates to elevate to Cardinal, and Bishop thereby ensuring that it will be John Paul's church and Benedict's church for the foreseeable future.

I'm sure the next Pope, chosen by those overwhelmingly extremely conservative Cardinals will make Opus Dei deliriously happy,...

and will continue to try to make sure the church moves deeper and deeper into representing the "Dark Ages" of Europe reborn and will thus make itself less and less relevant to God's work in and among humans as humans and human society continue to evolve.

Yeah its his health...

You guys linked to the wrong LA Times article:,0,3114631....

Recently a ton of Church documents were released as part of a sex abuse settlement. In them are communications between Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, who is accused of covering up for and assisting pedophile priests in avoiding prosecution, and then Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict who led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that oversaw wrong doing in the church. Mahony reported the abuse and his actions to Ratzinger/Benedict. These documents have yet to be fully examined and its speculated that Benedict's "retirement" may be related.

When you think about it, over the last 600 years there have be many frail popes and I'd be willing to bet that a little research would turn up a few financial scandals, this retirement is something new, why now?

Opus Dei

When Benedict was elevated to Pope, a lot of conservatives were cheered by the news, hoping he would "clean house". (Apparently they thought JPII was way too liberal.) Liberals worst fears were unrealized, conservatives greatest hopes were unmet.