Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | February 27, 2013

Benedict, Go in Peace

untitledTomorrow night at 8 o’clock in the evening (Rome time), Benedict XVI will no longer be the visible head of the Catholic Communion. He joins a club even more exclusive than the one he has been in since April of 2005. He will be a retired pope. The Vatican has announced that he’ll be known as “pope emeritus,” that he’ll continue to wear a simple white cassock and be addressed as “your holiness,” but without his trademark red shoes. Those, it seems, are the privelege of the reigning pope.

Conspiracy theorists are having a hay day, but I see this for what it appears to be: an elderly man is stepping aside because he can no longer adequately function in his role as leader of more than a billion Catholics. It’s a daunting job, even for a younger person. His characteristic stoop has grown worse in recent months, he moves more feebly, and his eyes often seem more distant, reflective. He suffers from heart problems. His doctors want him to cease his travels.

As Ignatius of Loyola once suggested, even bishops die. Yes, and that includes the bishop of Rome. It has been announced that Benedict will be flown by helicopter tomorrow night to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence in the hills outside the city. Then he plans to return to Vatican City in a couple of months when his retirement villa is renovated. There he will probably live out his days in mostly quiet solitude, along with Contessina. She is the cat who has already taken up residence. His presence will continue to be felt, especially as the cardinal electors gather to choose his successor. I suspect his health is worse than we’ve been told, however, and that his time in retirement will be short.

John Paul II taught us the lesson of perseverance. His death was a very public one. The world watched as he steadily declined. He faced his own demise as stubbornly as he dealt with members of the clergy and the bishops with whom he disagreed. Benedict is teaching us a different lesson. Life in this world ends for us all, popes included. The papal office is a job that one takes up and then puts down. It is not necessary to wait for Death’s arrival in order to leave office with faithfulness.

If the Catholic Church is unsure of how to handle a retired pope, it’s not just because there have been so few. It’s also because of the mythology and near-divinity that accompany the office. Popes once claimed to be the Vicar of Peter. Now they prefer to be styled as the Vicar of Christ himself. They once claimed ecclesiastical power mostly for Italy, now they claim juridical authority over the entire Christian Church–with or without the cooperation of the rest of the world’s Christians!

In 1296 Pope Celestine V resigned from office after only five months and eight days. He had been a hermit who lived his life in prayer. Elected to the papacy, he attempted to flee. A delegation of cardinals convinced him to accept the post but he was miserable. The next pope, unsure of how to handle a retired pope, had Celestine placed in prison. He died there.

It is interesting to note that in 2009, Pope Benedict visited the tomb of Celestine V. He left a papal vestment on the glass coffin in which the former pope is interred. One must imagine that he was struggling with the question of his own resignation even then.

Strictly speaking, no one is elected to the papacy. He is elected as the bishop of Rome. By virtue of this fact he is accorded the prerogatives of the papal office. This is confirmed by the fact that if a layman, deacon or priest is elected (something that is allowed by Canon Law), he cannot assume the powers of the office until he is ordained a bishop. In the Church’s ancient theological tradition, it is baptism and ordination that make an indelible mark on the soul, not the assumption of papal office.

That mark, or change, cannot be taken away, even if one abandons the faith. Catholics do not “reordain” or “rebaptize.” An ordained person is always ordained. A baptized person is always baptized. But a pope is not always a pope. The papacy is an office held by a particular bishop. In stepping away from that office, Benedict will continue to be a bishop but he will not be the bishop of Rome. He will not be the pope. He may still enjoy certain papal honors (along with excellent healthcare and helpful staff), but the powers of the papacy will no longer be his to exercise. And that is the point.

The pope is not a king. Nor is he an emperor. For all the Catholic hopes that Christianity may one day be reunited, the papacy does not serve this longing by acting in ways more common to royalty than to the simple Savior from Nazareth. At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the world’s Catholic bishops joined with Pope John XXIII to initiate what some have called “the faithful revolution” against the ecclesiastical imperialism and excessive centralization perpetrated for centuries by popes and Vatican bureaucrats (known as the Roman Curia). Vatican II sought what Pope John called aggiornamento, an “updating” of the Church and a new dialogue with the world. Metaphorically opening the doors and windows of the Church, they recognized that God is at work in the world and not only in sanctuaries. And they knew that power is not the same thing as goodness.

They recognized that the Church teaches the world. But as Judge John Noonan reminds us in his book A Church That Can and Cannot Change, sometimes the world teaches the Church a thing or two as well.

Contessina the cat.  Benedict's new roommate?

Contessina the cat. Benedict’s new roommate?

Fr. Joseph Ratzinger–the man who is pope for one more day–was present at the Second Vatican Council as a peritus, or theological expert. At times he disagreed with both the “progressive” and the “conservative” parties at the council and even afterward. He has left a considerable mark upon the papacy and the entire Catholic Church. It is difficult for some (including me) not to believe that his interpretation of Vatican II has been a bit of a march backward. Still, his theological expertise has allowed him to be open in some ways that John Paul II never considered.

There is much talk about the next pope. There is even wild apocalyptic speculation that if Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is elected that the eschatological prophecies of St. Malachy will be fulfilled (I place that speculation in the same category as concerns about the Mayan calendar). It’s easy to find online, so I will leave my readers to enjoy that material elsewhere.

Once Benedict has coptered out of Vatican City, final preparations will begin to fall into place rapidly with regard to the papal conclave that will elect his successor. There is no need for the official nine days of mourning. We can expect a new pope before the end of March. Then we can ask where the Spirit may be leading the Church. And we can speculate anew on how well the pope is listening.

One thing is certain, even in Catholic dogma. The Spirit speaks not only through the Roman Magisterium (the hierarchical leadership of the Church). She also speaks through the people of the Church. The “teaching Church” (Ecclesia docens) and the “learning Church” (Ecclesia discens) need each other. These two components of the Church represent dynamic poles on a spectrum; they are forever in motion. They interact in the mystery that is the Spirit’s presence in the Church.

Sometimes the people learn from the hierarchy. Sometimes the hierarchy learn from the people. John XXIII was aware of this. Perhaps the next pope will understand it as well. Infallibility, when properly represented, is not a characteristic so much of the papal office as the Church itself. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, the Church is the People of God. And that category is a bit bigger than the Roman Magisterium.

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