The German Shepherd bows out
Pope Benedict XVI © Tony Gentile/Reuters
BY RUPERT SHORTT
To many, the news was seismic. No pope has resigned since the fifteenth century. Perhaps, though, the portents of Benedict XVI’s abdication were there all along. Two years ago he told a German interviewer, Peter Seewald, that a pope could step down if he were too physically or mentally frail to do his job. Even John Paul II, renowned for the doggedness with which he pursued his ministry in the face of chronic ill health, is said to have entrusted his private secretary with a resignation letter to be published if he reached a certain level of incapacity.
But John Paul’s mental condition see-sawed. His toughness won the admiration of many; overall, though, the effect on the Church was very mixed. The barque of Peter was steered this way and that by competing Vatican officials, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger among them. The contrast between sclerosis at the top, and the vibrant grassroots of the Church in Latin America, Africa and Asia, looked stark.
It was perhaps concern over the prospect of further drift that fed Benedict’s wish to spend the final months or years of his life out of the spotlight. He has set a good precedent: Paul VI, in office from 1963 to 1978, wanted to retire, but clung on to office in a state of increasing decrepitude out of a sense of duty. Pius XII, a victim of quacks, was corpse-like long before his death in 1958.
Even so, there are many who question whether the latest news augurs well for the Church. In the first place, a new pope may feel hedged in by a living predecessor. Others suggest that the next pontiff will almost certainly be Benedict’s man, because the College of Cardinals is packed with conservative clones and weighted in a European direction. The chief criticism targeted at Joseph Ratzinger for over 30 years has been that he acted as a player, promoting his own hardline interpretation of the faith, when he should have been a referee and bridge-builder. Debate about reform – on church government and financial transparency, let alone over teaching on the place of women or clerical celibacy or sexual ethics – is thus likely to be put on ice.
But the future is far from certain. John XXIII, an elderly man elected as a caretaker leader in 1958, turned the ecclesiastical world upside down by summoning the Second Vatican Council. The lesson? Elective monarchy is the most unpredictable form of rule yet devised.