The Chinese Year of the Snake has started out with a bang. The Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI would be resigning on February, 2013. His Holiness will be the first Pope in 600 years to voluntarily resign and the world’s 450 million Catholics will have to look for a new Pope.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who became Benedict XVI was a theological conservative. You can say that his conservative views coloured his Papacy. He was hit hard by events. The scandal involving the abuse of children by priest will undoubtedly mar his time as head of the Catholic Church. Then there were controversial moments – quoting a Byzantine Emperor’s remarks about Islam and pardoning a Bishop who openly denied the existence of the Holocaust come to mind.
Much will be said about his time as head of the world’s largest Christian Denomination in the years to come. For me, I would rather focus on one of the most crucial acts of his Papacy – his resignation and the reasons for it.
In his statement, the Pope said, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” In other words – he was too old to carry on. You have to applaud him for this single sentence for several important reasons.
Let’s start with the fact that he’s admitting that he’s human and suffering from the consequences of age. You might argue that there’s no big deal here. However, he’s doing so from a position of power (As well as being revered by 450 million Catholics around the world, the Pope is considered a Head of State by International Law). History is littered with examples of old men in positions of power who forgot that they were human and prone to declining with age. Such men have done great things in their younger days and then undone their good work by hanging onto power when their time was up. Mao comes to mind as one of these figures. Thankfully for the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI is not going to be one of these men.
Giving up “office” isn’t exactly easy, especially when “office” grants you lots of power and very nice trappings. As mentioned earlier, people who have these offices often try to hang onto them until they need to be forcibly removed. The obsession of holding onto office ends up becoming so powerful that the person trying to hold on ends up damaging the “office” and the people that the “office” was supposed to serve.
Say what you like about this Pope but his act of resignation allows the Catholic Church the chance to choose a new leader, who may or may not be the right person to lead the Church in the next era. This Pope has admitted that he doesn't have the strength to do it and keeping him would only prolong the status quo. A new leader provides the Church with a chance to have a breath of ‘proverbial’ fresh air.
There is no guarantee that the next Pope will be drastically different from the current one. The Conclave of Cardinals selects one of their own and most of them have been brought up in the same traditions. However, who’s to say that the next Pope won’t have the energy required for the task ahead.
Resigning has also helped ensure that the Church and the office of the Papacy will be separated from the man of Joseph Ratzinger. While the Papacy has survived its incumbents for nearly two thousand years, things are different in the age of the internet. The “office” like many others has come under constant scrutiny and people see and view “offices” by the people who fill them. Our expectations of the office are tied to the people.
Let’s just look back at Benedict XVI’s predecessor, John-Paul II. He was Pope for so long that he ended up personifying the office. It was so much so that everyone ended up associating the office of the Papacy with an old man who was practically drooling during every liturgy.
Benedict XVI by contrast will be leaving the Papacy while he’s still relatively healthy. It’s rare for Pope’s to do so. The last Pope who resigned did so 600 years ago. Pope’s tend to die in office. Perhaps this was fine when people didn’t live for a long time and didn’t have to perform in front of the TV or internet channels.
You might argue that the Papacy is a different institution from say the US Presidency. As such, it’s OK to keep a man in the same position for eternity. However, Papacy is a position of leadership. The Pope is a Head of State and there is a case that you should have Pope’s who are healthy and strong.
Benedict XVI may have made mistakes as Pope. However, the decision to admit his frailty and give up office is not one of them. This act of voluntary resignation may be the act that brings the Papacy into the modern age.