Pontiff renounces office for sake of the Church

Pope Benedict XVI’s choice to renounce the papacy was clearly undertaken for what he sees as the good of the Church.  

The pontiff declared in his poignant announcement Feb. 11, “In order to govern the barque 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.”  

He will renounce the office of the Bishop of Rome officially at 8 p.m. Roman time on Feb. 28. 

Pope Benedict’s decision is not one that can be rejected by the members of the College of Cardinals. According to Canon 332, Paragraph 2 in the Code of Canon Law, a papal resignation is valid when freely and properly manifested. But the Church’s law also notes that it is not accepted by anyone, as there is no one qualified to “accept”; it occurs simply as a result of the pope freely resigning. This he did, with “full freedom.”

Historical context

In the history of the Church, papal resignations have been rare, but they are not unprecedented. The last resignation was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII renounced his rightful claim to be pope in order to end the so-called Great Western Schism that had divided the Church since 1378.  

Before that, Pope St. Celestine V resigned in 1294 when he concluded that he was unable to lead the Church. 

A one-time hermit, Pope Celestine was overburdened with the demands of governing. After his resignation, he was allowed to retire to a monastery. Upon entering his new quarters, he exclaimed, “I desired nothing in the world save a cell, and a cell they have given me.” He died two years later. 

Pope Benedict was more than capable as pontiff, but, like Pope Celestine, he ended his pontificate for the sake of the Church. Pope Benedict will reportedly spend his final days in prayer and study in a small monastery located in the Vatican City State.   

History proved a harsh judge of Pope Celestine. Dante Alighieri, in “The Divine Comedy,” consigned him to hell for “the great refusal.” 

The judgment on Pope Benedict XVI is likely to be very different. He accepted election with reluctance after a lifetime of service to the Church as a priest, archbishop, cardinal and one of the great theologians of the 20th century. He served as pope for nearly eight years, and when he realized that his mounting infirmities posed challenges for him to lead fully and effectively, he renounced the Petrine ministry. The decision was an act of remarkable humility and also one of extraordinary prudence. He will die Joseph Ratzinger, having given one final act of service to the Church.

Health struggles

The signs had been there for several years that this was a possibility. In April 2009, Pope Benedict visited the central Italian town of Aquila. While there, he stopped and prayed at the tomb of Pope Celestine in the Basilica Santa Maria di Collemaggio. He then placed upon the tomb his pallium, the white woolen band of cloth adorned with six black crosses that is worn by metropolitan archbishops and the pope himself representing their authority.  

The gesture was followed the next year by an interview with German journalist Peter Seewald in “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times” (Ignatius Press, $19.95) in which he was asked if he could imagine the circumstances in which resignation might be appropriate.  

He replied, “If a pope clearly realizes 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.” 

Over the next several years, speculation only increased about his health. In fall 2011, he began using the transport device that had been adopted by Blessed John Paul II to travel the football-field long floor of St. Peter’s Basilica, and by the end of 2012 many papal observers pointed to fatigue and his struggle to walk, especially during long liturgies.

Planning ahead

The pope went about his preparations methodically. He held two consistories in 2012, the first naming 22 cardinals in February and then another, naming six in November. The second set of appointments included cardinals distributed from around the world. In effect, the pope was making certain that the College of Cardinals was at or close to its limit of 120 papal electors (cardinals under the age of 80).  

He met a few days ago with the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, and likely consulted with some of his closest advisers. Few in the Vatican apparently knew of his final decision. 

The precise timing has been the source of speculation. It is probable that he plans to use the remaining weeks to prepare for his departure from the Apostolic Palace. 

The conclave to find a new pope will go forward in precisely the same manner as any other. The last time a pope was elected who was not at the time a cardinal was 1376, so the odds are very high that one of the cardinals entering the Sistine Chapel in early March will be chosen.

Setting a precedent

The new pope will have two immediate challenges. The first is to assume the enormity of the papacy. The second is to ascend to the throne of Peter with his successor still alive, an event that has not happened in six centuries.  

How this will work in a practical sense is yet to be determined as this is something truly peculiar in modern Catholic history. 

Pope Benedict’s resignation also signals something potentially very significant for those who follow him. He has established a possible precedent, in which a pontiff faced with incapacitating illness or frailty might renounce the papacy to ensure vital and active leadership for the Church.  

With modern medical care lengthening lifespans, popes will inevitably live longer, but not necessarily in a condition to provide fully for the pastoral needs of more than a billion Catholics in a world, said by Pope Benedict in his announcement, that is “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”  

The decision about resignation will now become a permanent feature of future pontificates, and each pontiff will have to make similarly prudential judgments. In Pope Benedict, they have a wise and humble example. 

Matthew Bunson, a Church historian, is the editor of The Catholic Almanac (OSV, $32.95) and the Catholic Answer magazine and co-author of “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis” (OSV, $12.95).