Posts Tagged ‘papacy’

One can never know quite what is in another person’s mind. We cannot know, for example, precisely what led Joe Ratzinger to resign from the papacy—the first pope to do so in 600 years.  Even in Vatican-speak, that’s an awful long time. Perhaps the best we can do is keep from being too naïve, particularly when power is in the equation.

First, on the question of why the pope resigned, age and health-related concerns were doubtless at the forefront. According to Vatican sources, his decision was prompted in part by the fall he had suffered in 2012 during a trip to Mexico. “It unnerved him, as well as his doctors,” said the source. “It was a cause for alarm. By the time he went on his visit to Lebanon in September, he had taken the decision to resign. He is less well than he appears.” Indeed, unknown to even his flock, he had had a pacemaker  installed even before he was elected pope in 2005. The betrayal by his butler and the controversy over the transparency of the Vatican bank also “had an influence,” according to Jose Saraiva Martins, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  Being an effective pope is more than simply personifying a message of faith; taxing chores of governance also attend to the occupant.

What is particularly interesting in the articles on the factors behind the pope’s resignation is the absence of one that should have been at the forefront in considerations of the office’s taxing demands. It does not appear that the matter of priests who have raped children, and the related enabling rather than accountability by the Vatican played much of a role in the pope’s concern that he no longer had sufficient strength for the job.

Also missing from the popular press is the thesis that the pope resigned not so much for the good of the Church, but, rather, so he would be able to see to it that his successor would be just as conservative ideologically, ecclesiastically, and politically. The notion that he would not have any influence just because he says so or is not in the conclave itself is naïve.  Indeed, being around for the election of his successor is a pretty astute and clever strategy, especially considering that he probably would not have long in the office anyway, given his ill-health. Being around for the next coronation is for a pope a bit like being able to be around for his own funeral. 

The concern that Ratzinger’s continued presence in the Vatican could prompt a power-struggle assumes that the cardinals, many of whom he had appointed, would all of a sudden turn him aside and elect a liberal or even a moderate. The only practical chance of such a surprise would be if none of the frontrunners secure enough votes to be elected.  This is precisely how the pope was elected who started the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Even if an eventual-reforming pope were elected, he would face a sea of conservative cardinals and bishops. Given his appointments, Ratzinger need not even be in the conclave to have a huge influence on the contours of the outcome.  He may want a little extra insurance through personal contacts prior to the conclave, but the pope’s influence had been largely established already, well before he announced his resignation.  The question, perhaps unanswerable even to the pope himself, is perhaps whether his motive was to see to it that the Church would be in “safe hands.”


See the related article, “Pope Benedict XVI Says He Has Reigned “For Good of the Church,” The Telegraph, February 13, 2013: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/the-pope/9867148/Pope-Benedict-XVI-says-he-has-resigned-for-good-of-the-Church.html




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On February 11, 2013, Joe Ratzinger announced that he would resign at the end of that month as pope of the Roman Catholic Church. “He emphasized that carrying out the duties of being pope — the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide — requires ‘both strength of mind and body’.” The 85 year-old had come to the conclusion that his condition in his advanced age precluded him from being able to sufficiently perform the duties of his office. The fact that he had witnessed the debilitating end of John Paul II’s papacy was undoubtedly a factor.  It is ironic that a very conservative man would be the one to go against a custom that had been unceasingly observed since Gregory XII “stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.”

The custom of staying in office until death had gained the right of place in the status quo, and thus an obligatory sense had come to be associated with the practice.  In contrast, Ratzinger had argued, “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” In this case, the explicit obligation goes up against the implicit obligation that goes with maintaining a practice or custom in the status quo. The explicit obligation is superior to the implicit one because the latter is artificial in nature. That is to say, the duty to maintain a practice simply because it has been exercised for a long time suffers from a want of rationale or justification. In contrast, not being able to fulfill one’s vocational duties involves a duty to resign based on the deontological principle of fulfilling one’s obligations. Hence if in making a promise or contract, one is not able (or willing) to fulfill one’s part, one has the duty to make restitution to the other party.

The tragedy being possibly recognized in the wake of Ratzinger’s announcement is how much the office has needlessly been performed sub-optimally due to a pope’s infirm condition. In other words, the fact that the sky does not fall after all when a pope resigns suggests that there is nothing wrong with any pope resigning when he has come to the point in his life when he can no longer optimally fulfill the administrative/policy tasks of the office. In fact, resigning can be viewed as a good thing because the Roman Catholic Church depends on a fully-functioning system of church government. The papacy plays a very significant role even in the day to day operations, albeit at a high level of course. More than an omission of leadership is missing when the occupant of the office is too old to perform the office’s tasks.

The argument that simply being a living symbol of the Church and being a witness to suffering justify the tasks not being performed even for years at a time essentially privileges one part of the office and misconstrues the role of suffering in the Crucifixion. Such suffering is not suffering per se or needless suffering; it is suffering in a theological sense, and thus of added meaning from a context missing in suffering from simply having reached a ripe old age. Generally speaking, the tyranny of even a long-standing custom can give rise to mistaken rationales that themselves gain sacred status and so are presumably not to be questioned. The religious auspices get stretched too far, and thus presume too much for themselves. Religion itself becomes human, all too human, rather than divine.

For more, please read the following article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/11/pope-benedict-xvi-to-resi_n_2660670.html




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