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