Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some Thoughts on Benedict XVI and his Resignation

Hearing the news yesterday morning on WGN that Pope Benedict XVI had announced that he would step down from his ministry as pope, I first thought “Oh, it must be April 1st” but then quickly realized that it was the middle of February and not April’s Fools Day, and that this was serious business indeed.

The news that Papa Ratzinger had announced his abdication of the Apostolic See and his ministry as the Bishop of Rome, Peter’s Successor, Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church effective February 28, 2013 was truly stunning.  Here are some initial thoughts. 

1.  I think that Rocco Palmo (here) is right to note that Benedict reached this decision some time ago.  Benedict clearly cited his health and age as the reason for his decision. “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, 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 this, I think, Benedict is in effect saying 'There is no one man indispensable to the life of the Church  . . . only the God/Man Jesus.  Yet the man who succeeds Peter needs to have the strength and vitality that I lack precisely because the Church needs to be a vital force in the world .  .  . as a teacher and promoter of God's mercy in action.  And although my successor will not be “young” as the world measures youth, I pray that he will have the youth of spirit to fulfill the role as Peter's successor -- to confirm the brethren in the faith -- in a way I am no long able.  I trust that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church in this so that the Gospel can be preached with even greater efficacy.'

So construed, Benedict’s decision is itself an act of teaching – a demonstration of how we are to live our lives as Christians – to trust in the Lord and His providence.  Although John Paul II decided to remain in office until his death and Benedict has chosen to step down, you can hear in the latter’s statement the teaching of his predecessor: “Be not afraid!”

2.  Still, the timing is remarkable in that Benedict would choose to set the process in motion for the selection of his successor before Easter.  Because Holy Week and the Paschal season are an especially hectic and demanding time for the pope, I agree with Jimmy Akin’s comment (here) that Benedict must truly feel that “his deterioration of health is serious.”   Jimmy Akin also notes that stepping down now means that Benedict will not complete the important and ambitious work of the
Year of Faith that he set out to do.

3.  Many have noted that the abdication of a pope is extremely rare, and indeed is without precedent in modern times, the last pope to do so being Gregory XII in 1415.

It is, however, worth noting that an analogous situation already exists in the contemporary Church.  In 2011, Nasrallah Sfeir, the long-ruling and much beloved Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, stepped down because of his advanced age and Bechara Rai was elected to serve as the new head of the Lebanese church.  Similarly, Lubomyr Husar stepped down and was succeeded in 2011 by Sviatuslav Shevchuck as the Major Archbishop (the de facto Patriarch) of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.  (Other examples could be provided).

Although serving as Bishop of Rome – Pastor of the Universal Church, Servant of the Servants of God – carries with it special responsibilities and burdens, these are examples in which the heads of two respective churches within the Universal Church have stepped aside to leave the task of shepherding the flock of Christ to a younger man without fear of schism, without the fear that the elder man would interfere with the leadership of his successor.

4.  We are of course left to ponder what Benedict’s legacy will be.  In the first place, I think he be remembered as the pope who continued the important work of John Paul II in giving the Church a definitive and authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council – a point also made by Rev. Robert Barron (linked to in Kevin Lee’s recent post here).

Like his immediate predecessor, Benedict made secure a correct understanding of the Council by telling us what it was and what it was not.  It was a council of reform and not a council of rupture with the twenty ecumenical councils that preceded it, either with respect to the contents of the faith or the structures of the Church, some of which (e.g. orders) are of divine origin and cannot be altered.  It was far less a matter of reordering internal church affairs than it was an evangelical moment.  It was a call by the Holy Spirit for the faithful to engage the world precisely as followers of Christ.

Rev. James Martin, S.J. has said (here) that Benedict will be remembered for his three encyclicals and for the books he published on Jesus of Nazareth while pope.

I think that his three encyclicals are important, but as I have written elsewhere (here) because of their nature as ecclesial documents and the process whereby they were generated, each lacks a certain polish.

More than his encyclicals, I think that as pope Benedict will be remembered for his sermons in a way not unlike Pope St. Leo the Great.  He is an extraordinary homilist.

I also think he will be remembered for his theological writings prior to becoming pope.  Joseph Ratzinger has a special talent as a thinker and writer for explaining complex theological ideas in a way that makes them understandable to modern men and women for whom talk of religious faith has become problematic.  A great deal of contemporary theological writing seems to veer towards the drivel of a new age mysticism and syncretism or the dry prose of an engineering manual, or the latest party platform, providing little if any connection to the Living God of history – the God of Israel, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ.  In his writings, Ratzinger has consistently mined the depths of scripture and the theological concepts of the great Catholic tradition (especially the Fathers) while connecting both to philosophy and contemporary thought in a way that provides new insights, all the while keeping the person of Jesus and our relationship with Him foremost in the minds of readers.

In terms of the nearly 1.2 billion people who make up the Catholic Church world-wide, only a tiny fraction were fortunate to be Joseph Ratzinger's graduate students.  But through his writings and sermons, many have been given the opportunity to be his pupils, to be students in the Ratzinger seminar on faith and life.



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