What are we to make of Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that he is abdicating the papacy and retiring?
It has been said that he is the first pope in almost 600 years to do so, ever since Gregory XII in 1415. But that may not be a fully appropriate comparison, inasmuch as Gregory’s stepping down was done under a good deal of duress. It was the time of the so-called Great Western Schism, and there were simultaneously as many as three popes, all claiming legitimacy: one in Rome (Gregory XII), one in Avignon (John XXIII), and another in Pisa (Benedict XIII). Things got very messy for a while, but finally the first two resigned (again, under a good deal of pressure). Benedict XIII refused to do so, however, and got himself excommunicated instead. Finally, Martin V took over, and things began to stabilize a bit.
What may be something of a more even match is the freely, indeed eagerly, tendered resignation of Celestine V in 1294. Known for his great asceticism, Celestine (who had founded a stricter order of monks, subsequently referred to as the Celestines, under the general rubric of the Benedictine rule) was virtually almost forced into accepting the papal role. He even tried to hide in the forest when they came to get him, but the pursuing cardinals eventually caught up with him. He reigned for just over 5 months, ineptly so according to all accounts, probably because he had no interest in it and did not want the job in the first place. When he finally resigned, he said that he did so because of “the desire for humility, for a purer life, the deficiencies of his own strength, the perverseness of the people, and his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”
I’m not sure that people are any less perverse today than they were in the 13th century, but that is not among the reasons Benedict XVI has given for his retirement. It seems as though it’s because he feels himself to be too old, too infirm, and just no longer capable of attending to his duties as Supreme Pontiff. Fair enough, I guess. He is, after all, an 85 year old man with Parkinson’s disease.
Still, this decision leaves a lot of questions in its wake. Let’s just say that the papacy is not immune, nor has it ever been throughout most of its history, from politics. How could it be? The position, and therefore the man (never a woman, it goes without saying) who holds it, wields far too much power in the world. This remains true even in today’s admittedly more secular society. A friend of mine, who will remain anonymous because I don’t have his permission to name names, believes that Benedict might have resigned specifically so that he could have a hand, albeit covertly, in the selection of a new pope. The thinking, apparently, goes that Benedict, realizing his growing physical and mental weakness, decided to throw in the towel while he still had control of his faculties. And that he did this so as to have the opportunity to manipulate things behind the scenes in the upcoming conclave (the assemblage of voting cardinals that choses the new pope), with the express purpose of ensuring that a fully vetted conservative would take over as his successor.
I have no way of knowing if this was actually part of Benedict’s thinking, but again he would clearly not be the first pope in history to make a decision based on the desire to advance a certain political agenda. Indeed, Benedict’s record is a distinctly mixed one, to say the very least. On the one hand, he comes across as a somewhat benign white haired old man, a shy hermit, and a scholar. He may in fact, as an individual, possess these traits, but as pope it cannot also be denied that he has done some very damaging things.
The first, and possibly most injurious, among these is the great pedophile scandal of the Catholic Church. I am not suggesting that the pope himself physically harmed any children. However, in his role as cardinal – and later as pope – there can be little doubt that he knew of many hundreds of priests, possibly more, who did do personal and psychological harm to children under the guise of their priestly duties. And he did nothing to bring this to light. Instead, time and time again, just as we saw with Cardinal Law of Boston and Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, to name only a few co-conspirators, he made decisions which held the reputation and the finances of the organization of the Church as paramount, to the detriment of the wellbeing of children who had been grievously harmed by priests and other religious.
Other dubious acts, decisions, and hurtful comments come to mind, as well. He showed himself inordinately insensitive to Muslims early on in his career, he did little to shed light on the scandalous and illegal practices of the Vatican bank, and he inflicted great harm on gay people the world over. His extraordinary comments regarding the latter will, in fact, go down as among the most ignominious in history.
Benedict XVI has said that homosexual acts are evil and “intrinsically disordered.” Regarding same sex marriage, he is on record as accusing gay people of manipulating their God-given identities in order to suit their sexual choices, and in so doing actually destroying the human creature in the process. In regard to the adoption of children into loving gay homes, he has said that this represents an attack on the family, and has even gone so far as to claim that it is a threat to world peace. He appears to insist that being gay is a choice, not a fact of nature, and has said that, in “choosing to be gay,” man is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God. Are these, we have to ask, the words of a shy and benign hermit/scholar?
And yet, in spite of all, I do not wish the pope ill. Indeed, what I wish him is enlightenment. And I can only hope – and yes, even pray – that he will some day come to see the error of his ways, and recognize that the inertia and inaction he has demonstrated when it comes to protecting children, the intransigence and obfuscation he manifested regarding the Church’s finances, and the harsh and hateful words he has spoken about gay people and others all have consequences in the real world.
I wish him enlightenment, but I frankly do not expect it. What I expect instead is that some day in the not too distant future, Benedict XVI (or however he chooses to call himself once he resigns), will be walking along the well-tended garden path behind St. Peter’s Basilica, and he will run into the new pope. I expect the conversation will be brief, but pointed, and that he will urge his successor to follow all the misguided promulgations and policies that he, himself was responsible for. In other words, I expect retirement from him, and a degree of retrenchment as an individual. I expect he will spend his time in prayer and reflection and study, and I can only hope that in the process he achieves a modicum of wisdom. But, sadly, what I do not expect is a clear statement, or any retreat whatsoever, from the hurtful and damaging declamations and policies the retiring pope has unnecessarily inflicted upon an already distressed and suffering world.