The Servant of the servants of God Departs in Peace

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation surprised the world, but the elderly pontiff leaves office having accomplished his mission

Features The Catholic Church
Defender of the faith: Benedict XVI, seen here on Ash Wednesday, proved that the Catholic restoration was not the aberration of a Polish pope

There was perhaps an intimation of Pope Benedict XVI’s intention to resign as pope when on January 6 Monsignor Georg Gänswein, for a decade his private secretary, was ordained a bishop with the title Archbishop of Urbs Salvia and appointed Prefect of the Papal Household. Only those in Pope Benedict’s inner circle can be sure of its human dynamics, but from all appearances, Monsignor Gänswein was an indispensable aide to the ageing pontiff. If he was to move on, then no doubt Pope Benedict meant to move on too.

There have been only three cases in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church of a papal resignation or abdication and none that exactly matches this one. On all previous occasions, outside powers came into play — the Emperor Henry III in the case of Gregory IX, the German King Sigismund in the case of Gregory XII, and between the two, in 1294, there was Celestine V who became the puppet of Charles II of Naples and Sicily. Today, not even the most extreme conspiracy theorists could believe that President Obama or Chancellor Merkel had any hand in Pope Benedict’s decision. If he were looking for a precedent, Celestine V was the most comparable: Pietro del Morrone was a hermit, elected at the age of 85, who quickly realised he was not up to the job. He consulted Cardinal Caetani, the Vatican’s leading canon lawyer, as to whether it was possible for him to resign. Caetani ruled that it was. Celestine was duly stripped of his papal insignia and Caetani elected pope (Boniface VIII) in his stead.

Celestine V was pope for less than a year: Benedict XVI has held the office for almost eight years. Unlike Celestine, his many years as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)made him familiar with the workings of papal government and as pope he was able to enact a number of controversial measures. His motu proprio authorising any priest to celebrate the Latin Tridentine mass was opposed by many bishops who had hitherto sought to restrict it. It was courageous and imaginative to found the Ordinate of Our Lady of Walsingham, a prelature that would enable Anglicans to come into communion with the Catholic Church while retaining much of their liturgy and practice. His removal of all obstacles to a reconciliation with the Society of Pius X (SSPX), the followers of the late Archbishop Lefebvre, was also controversial and much misunderstood: it was erroneously taken to condone or pass over the denial of the Holocaust by one of the SSPX bishops, Bishop Richard Williamson — a grotesque distortion of which the pope was undoubtedly unaware.

In his seven years in office, Pope Benedict has also demonstrated his intellectual vigour by writing some outstanding Encyclicals. The first, Deus Caritas Est, encouraged some liberal Catholics to believe that the Pope had come to terms with the permissive society. It seemed to rehabilitate Eros. “Love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined,” he wrote “would seem to be the very epitome of love.” One parish priest in West London claimed from the pulpit that the Encyclical provided a theological framework for civil partnerships (same-sex marriage had not yet appeared on the horizon).     

Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, published in March 2007, dashed these hopes: it demonstrated beyond doubt that the leopard had not changed its spots. In part a summary of the Synod of Catholic Bishops held in Rome in 2005,  it was a lucid exposition of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, and a reminder of its place at the very heart of Catholic belief. The priest’s words of consecration at the Mass, wrote Pope Benedict, effect “a sort of ‘nuclear fission’, to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world.” 

The Exhortation reaffirmed the teaching of Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 that all conjugal acts must be open to the transmission of human life. Marriage and the family must be defended from “every possible misrepresentation of their true nature”. Non-Catholics may not partake of the Eucharist; nor divorced and remarried Catholics unless they promise to live together as brother and sister. He called for solemnity and dignity in the celebration of the Mass, and an enrichment of the liturgy — Latin to be used in all international celebrations, Gregorian chant to replace tuneful ditties. 

None of this came as a surprise to those who had studied the theology of Joseph Ratzinger or followed his more accessible interviews with journalists. The first of these was given in 1985 to an Italian journalist, Vittorio Messorio and was published as The Ratzinger Report. It came at a time of considerable post-Conciliar confusion as to what Catholics were meant to believe. In Western Europe and North America, the zealots of the spirit of Vatican II were in the ascendant, promoting a social Catholicism that encouraged violent revolution in Central America and an ecumenicism that made no distinction between the Catholic Church and other Christian religions. Ratzinger’s former colleague at the University of Tübingen, Hans Küng, was their guru. Collegiality, women priests, married priests, contraception, gay sex — all the usual suspects were to be found among priests, lay catechists, the staff of bishops’ conferences and Catholic charities and, sotto voce, bishops themselves.

The Ratzinger Report reaffirmed with calm and exceptional lucidity the traditional beliefs of the Church. Its teaching would be confirmed by The Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, and there were also the Encyclicals of Pope John Paul II which, though orthodox, timely and profound, lacked the clarity of Ratzinger’s writing. It was left to Ratzinger as Prefect for the CDF, a theologian on a par with the impenetrable Karl Rahner or the esoteric Hans Urs von Balthasar, to calmly confound those who would reinvent the Catholic faith. Decades would pass before Ratzinger’s teaching on the true meaning of Vatican II would gain widespread acceptance: liberal Catholics put it about that the “panzer cardinal” or “Rottweiler” would not outlast the Polish pope whose reign, itself an aberration, would be followed by that of a pope more in tune with the modern world — Cardinal Danneels, the Archbishop of Brussels, perhaps, or Cardinal Martini, the Archbishop of Milan.

The conclave that followed the death of Pope John Paul II showed that this was a pipedream. Devout traditionalists believe that the Holy Spirit moved the cardinals to elect Cardinal Ratzinger. Hans Küng, bitter that his vision had been thwarted, subsequently disparaged in his memoir Disputed Truth “the completely obsolete medieval rules for electing the Pope. The Pope chooses those who will elect his successor solely according to his taste . . . They will choose the next Pope — of course from their own ranks.”   

There can be no doubt that Joseph Ratzinger, aware of his age and the onerous duties of a pontiff, balked at the thought of the task ahead. But he must also have realised that his election would consolidate the achievements of his predecessor. As Prefect for the CDF, he had safeguarded true doctrine; as pope he could confirm that the restoration of discipline and orthodoxy in the Church was not the aberration of a Polish pope. 

Now, almost eight years later, Ratzinger’s task is done. His successor will follow in his footsteps: there are no cardinals who advocate an alternative magisterium, or a revolutionary interpretation of “the spirit of Vatican II”. It is a paradox, of course, that the last act of an orthodox pope is unorthodox: no pope since the Middle Ages has resigned. Although in the last weeks of Pope John Paul II’s life, his Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano, had said the resignation of a pope should not be ruled out, and Pope Benedict himself had mentioned it as a possibility, it nevertheless came as a surprise. 

The reasons he gave for his decision were increasing feebleness in mind and body. Clearly, he felt he no longer had the strength for the punishing programme of travel and public appearance that is expected of a modern pontiff. He may also have been dismayed by the picture of a rudderless administration of the Holy See that emerged from the trial of his butler, Paolo Gabriele, and the subsequent inquiry led by Cardinal Herranz. Pope Benedict had never been much interested in administration and his experience was limited to a few years as Archbishop of Munich and directing a small staff at the CDF. 

If any criticism can be made of him, it was that it was vain of him to expect to combine governance of the universal Church with writing books. His secretary, Monsignor Gänswein, made sure he had the space in his life to do this — as pope he published a trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth — while the governance of the Church was left to the curial cardinals, in particular Cardinal Bertone.

After his resignation Celestine V was locked up in Castel Fumone by his successor, Boniface VIII. Pope Benedict will move out of the Vatican palace into a former convent overlooking the Vatican gardens. He will be free to write further works to encourage and inspire us with his profound wisdom and great faith.