It requires the distance of history to judge properly whether Pope Benedict XVI was right to abdicate in February 2013. Five years is not sufficient distance. A judgment about the wisdom of the abdication need not involve a judgment on the pontificate of Pope Francis, but in practice it is difficult to separate the two.
Nonetheless, on the fifth anniversary there is an opportunity to reflect more soberly than was the case immediately after the earthquake of Feb. 11, 2013, when Benedict concluded a routine ceremony for the canonization of saints with the announcement that he would abdicate at the end of that same month.
At the time, I wrote that the abdication was an act of humility by a wise and holy man. George Weigel characterized as “his last great act of service to the Church.” Those who greatly admired Benedict XVI were inclined to see the decision in the best light.
Even then though, there were doubts. I wrote that what is foreseen by canon law was incomprehensible to the Catholic imagination, and it was profoundly unsettling.
Unsettling because what Benedict did had never been done before. Ever. In all the historical complexities of the Petrine office, no pope securely reigning, whose legitimacy was not in question, had ever abdicated.
The only remotely relevant case was that of Pope St. Celestine V, who resigned in 1294. In the summer of 1294, the papacy had been vacant for over two years. The cardinals were deadlocked. An 80-year-old monk, reputed for his ascetical discipline, wrote to the conclave, warning them that if they did not discharge their duty and elect a pope, they would face God’s wrath. The exhausted conclave responded by choosing the monk himself, Pietro da Morrone. He initially refused, but eventually gave in (or was coerced?) and was crowned in July 1294.
Six decades of monastic life left him ill-prepared to govern the Church, and he was soon overwhelmed and incompetent. Manifestly inadequate to the task, he promulgated a decree that permitted the pope to abdicate, and then did so. His papacy lasted five months.
Therefore, there was no precedent in the entire history of the Church for a pope, elected legitimately and without disputation, and manifestly able to function as pope, to resign. Furthermore, there is no precedent for a pope to resign on grounds of diminished health, given that every pope experiences diminished health sometime before he dies. Incapacity is different from diminishment, and Benedict was not incapacitated.
The burden of judgment then lies against the abdication.
Since February 2013, Benedict has not been entirely silent. His public interventions are few, but come every few months. The latest was this week in a letter to an Italian newspaper, thanking people for their prayers and good wishes as he enters the final phase of his life, a “pilgrimage toward Home.”
There was however, Benedict’s final interview book. Regarding the abdication, Benedict answered questions put to him by his longtime interlocutor, Peter Seewald. He made two main points.
First, that in no way was he pressured to abdicate. Indeed, he insists that had there been pressure, or some crisis, he would not have been free to do so, as it would be “fleeing from the wolves,” which he resolved not to do in his inaugural homily as pope.
Second, his free decision was motivated by his own inner conviction, the maturation of long prayer and reflection, that he no longer had the capacity to continue.
After his trip to Mexico and Cuba in 2012, he concluded that he no longer had the strength for such journeys. His doctor told him that he could not make another transatlantic trip. With the World Youth Day gathering scheduled for July 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Benedict resolved that as he was unable to keep that appointment, he must resign to make way for another. And so he did.
With utmost respect, this explanation, as offered, remains unconvincing. It is not obligatory for the pope to be at WYD. He could appear by video link. He could, one imagines, go on a special plane equipped with a bed and medical equipment. He could go a few days ahead of time and recuperate privately, as Benedict himself did for Sydney in 2008.
Above all, if the Lord wanted a new pope for WYD 2013, he could arrange matters, just as in 2005 the question of how the pope would be present at WYD Cologne was resolved by the death of John Paul and election of Benedict earlier in the year.
In Last Testament, Benedict argues that as he judged himself unable to maintain the current papal schedule, he could not continue as pope. Yet an alteration of the papal schedule would be a less radical step than changing the pope in office. Less frequent travel, a reduction in papal Masses, general audiences and Angelus appearances could plausibly be a path that Providence was indicating by Benedict’s diminishing strength.
Indeed, it would seem that precisely a period of less activity was required. Benedict himself indicated that his pontificate would not be one to replicate the immense number of documents under John Paul, nor would it keep the travel schedule that his predecessor set. But Benedict was industrious, above all in the superlative quality of his preaching and major addresses, as well as his three-volume life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.
A few years of less from the Holy Father might have given time for that material to be digested. Periods of activity and periods of rest would appear to be normal in a mission held for life.
Seminarians in the Rome in the 1950s recall that it was the exception, rather than the twice-weekly norm, even to see Pope Pius XII in public. Going back to that would not be out of keeping with the papal tradition; to be honest, it was John Paul’s exhausting pace that was the novelty.
The governance difficulties that marked the end of Benedict’s pontificate were often discussed by commentators as reasons for the abdication. Benedict himself rejects that analysis. But what we have learned since is that a more vigorous man does not mean that good governance is effected.
In retrospect, if Benedict was frustrated that reform was slow in coming it is likely because reform simply is unavoidably difficult and slow, rather than that something was lacking in Benedict or his principal collaborators.
Benedict will be remembered with gratitude and admiration for his long service to the Church, much of it given in spite of his desire to live the more hidden life of a priest-scholar. All the immense good that he accomplished will continue to bear fruit. But his decision to abdicate will occupy the first place in evaluating his legacy.
Cardinal Ratzinger took the view that the Holy Spirit had a mostly defensive role in the election of popes — that is, a given pope was not necessarily the will of God, but the promises of Christ meant that it would not lead to complete ruin.
It would seem the same approach is fitting for his own decision to abdicate. That it was taken by a holy man in total sincerity is beyond doubt. That it was God’s will is not clearly demonstrated, and seems less likely now than it did then.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the
editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine