Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


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

Although no pope has stepped down in six centuries, the explanation Benedict gave for his decision suggests they may now routinely retire, some believe. 

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

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.”

Article continues after advertisement

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.”