Beechert: Thank You, Father
By Michael Beechert, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, February 19, 2013
While the Pope’s advancing age is no secret, the resignation of Benedict XVI nonetheless came as a surprise to both followers and non-Catholics around the world. Elected by a papal conclave in 2005 after the death of his wildly popular predecessor John Paul II, Benedict assumed leadership of the Church at the ripe old age of 78. Confronted by a worldwide sexual abuse scandal and a host of challenges to parts of the Church’s social doctrine, the Pope was forced to navigate a complicated set of issues throughout his reign.
Normally, the papal succession is only prompted by the death of a sitting pope. To find a historical precedent for Benedict’s decision to resign, one has to look back to the early 15th century when Gregory XII was forced to abdicate to put an end to the Western Schism, a split in the Catholic Church that occurred when two individuals claimed to be the true pope. In fact, the last voluntary papal resignation occurred in 1294 when Celestine V stepped down as a result of his own self-recognized incompetence. Essentially, election to the papacy has, over the centuries, assumed the form of a lifetime appointment, which makes Benedict’s recent announcement even more noteworthy. At a routine morning address delivered in Latin, the Pope blamed “lack of strength of mind and body” for his decision to step down.
Given that each and every pope since 1415 has presumably experienced a “lack of strength” of either mind or body toward the end of his reign, it is likely that there are other motivations to Benedict’s departure. A scholar and university professor by nature, the Pope, born Joseph Ratzinger in Germany, was reputed to have only reluctantly accepted his elevation to the papacy by his colleagues in the College of Cardinals. Ever since he was ordained to his reign in the church’s highest position, Benedict, a prolific author and theologian, has taken little pleasure in maneuvering within the Vatican’s venerable political scene. Said scene, long dominated by competing egos and interests of various powers, has recently taken on a new dimension of complexity. The sexual abuse scandal, a shameful episode for all Catholics, has required a series of apologies from the Pope all over the world. Additionally, the conservative Benedict has had to respond to challenges to traditional church practices and positions ranging from birth control to gay marriage. In all likelihood, the Holy Father simply does not have the desire to deal with these issues anymore and wishes to live out the rest of his life in quiet retirement.
The question of Benedict’s legacy is an interesting one, given that he will be alive for some time after the conclusion of his reign. After Feb. 28, the to-be-former-Pope — it is unclear what titles or styles, if any, Benedict will assume — will watch as the church and his successor grapple with the same set of issues that he himself faced. In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger took charge of a very delicate faith-wide situation. The Pope spent most of the next eight years doing all he could to apologize for the inexcusable transgressions of the ordained molesters. He meanwhile remained admirably dedicated to defending his lifelong views regarding the church’s positions on gay marriage and abortion. Benedict also served to better relations between the Church and other faiths, a difficult task in today’s fractured world. While not in possession of the charisma and rock-star appeal of John Paul II, Benedict was a humble man who tried sincerely to act as both a leader of his people and an ambassador to the rest of the world.
The Catholic faithful should thank the Pope for his years of service to the Church and the rest of the world should acknowledge Benedict’s role as an effective ambassador to all of humanity. When the College of Cardinals convenes to elect the 266th pope in the coming weeks, a variety of factors will determine who will be Benedict’s successor. One can only hope that the cardinals select a leader who possesses a sincere sense of duty to both God and the faithful, and under whose guidance the church can serve as a force for good.