Opinion

The pope knows what he is about

byMichael Pakaluk
3/1/2013

Was it the characteristic act of a specifically German pope, of someone who hails from a land where efficiency and rational order are prized above all? That argument about Benedict's resignation may gain weight, if we consider that in contrast John Paul II, the Polish pope, from a country which rightly views itself as a suffering servant, seemed to embrace almost with relish the opportunity to offer up long years of illness as a witness, and for the sake of the Church.

Others say that it is ironic that the pope who, from the beginning of his pontificate, emphasized the "hermeneutic of continuity" -- that is, the necessity of interpreting the Second Vatican Council not as a "rupture" with what came before, but as reformulating enduring truths for our age -- ended that same pontificate with an act of resignation which was in fact a rupture with the past. The rupture, these commentators say, is that the pope by resigning remakes the papacy into a mere administrative office, like the CEO of a corporation. After all, fathers cannot and do not resign from their fatherhood.

These same critics say that Benedict's action now serves as a precedent which reshapes the papacy for all time. The reasons that were apparently decisive for Benedict -- "lack of strength of mind and body" -- must now be regarded as decisive by all his successors. No future Pope will be so foolhardy, or risk appearing so proud and grasping, as to remain in that office after his powers begin to fail.

Yet it is odd to second guess Pope Benedict on the nature of his own office and ministry. He is a deep and, most importantly, truthful theologian, who has spent years reflecting on his service as Vicar of Christ. He knows what he is about. If he tells us, as he did at his last General Audience on Wednesday, that "the decision I have made, after much prayer, is the fruit of a serene trust in God's will and a deep love of Christ's Church," it surely is presumptuous to claim that he made a disastrous misjudgment, or that there are dark downsides of his decision which we can see but he somehow overlooked.

His great perceptiveness is shown by how, in that General Audience, he anticipated and addressed all of the concerns I have mentioned.

In resigning from his office, does Benedict convert the papacy into a purely executive function, like a CEO? The pope replied, in effect, that it is not how a pope ends his pontificate (and it should be said that resignation is contemplated and allowed by Church law) but rather the way in which he assumes it, which determines its nature. The Pope was perfectly clear that the office requires a complete renunciation of private life, and a complete gift of self to the Church: "Here allow me to return once again to April 19, 2005. The seriousness of the decision also lay precisely in the fact that from that moment on I was busy always and forever with the Lord. Always -- whoever assumes the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and totally to everyone, to the whole Church. His life is, so to speak, totally deprived of its private dimension."

Benedict then said that his resignation changed nothing about this. "The 'always' is also a 'forever' -- there is no return to the private sphere. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry, does not revoke this. I will not return to private life."

These remarks explode the comparison with a CEO. No one when he is elected CEO believes that "always and forever" he has lost any private life. Actually, in advance many CEO's will negotiate "golden parachutes" to make their later pathway back to private life even easier.

Benedict goes on to explain that the spiritual fatherhood of the papacy depends upon this complete gift. "I experienced, and I am experiencing it now, that one receives life when one gives it." (All fathers in the ordinary sense should take note, because there is a big lesson here.) "The pope truly has brothers and sisters, sons and daughters all over the world, and that he feels safe in the embrace of their communion; because he no longer belongs to himself, he belongs to all and all belong to him" -- as many have palpably felt when standing within the embrace of Bernini's colonnade in St. Peter's Square.

Does the pope's resignation establish a precedent, then? No, not at all, precisely because the gift of self required by the office is "always and forever." On that principle, the default case, the ordinary case, must be that the pope exercises active ministry until death, although in special circumstances, after much prayer, and by divine light, God may ask a pope to do otherwise and resign.

We should of course interpret the Vatican press office's statement that the pope resigned from "lack of strength of mind and body" as a polite, discrete, and perfectly general non-explanation. My own guess, if I had to hazard one, is that the pope judged that the Church right now faces concerns so serious, that the well-being of the Church would be at risk if, say, he were incapacitated before he could resign, and no one were governing it for months or years -- a sobering enough thought for perseverance in the Year of Faith.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy and Chairman at Ave Maria University.