So, the Pope has resigned.
I’m not quite sure what to make of it. This hasn’t happened in over 600 years.
Being late to this party, other better writers have written much about what I want to say.
Benedict XVI has been the best Pope I can remember. Since I can only remember two, this means I think he was a better Pope than John Paul II.
This is not to diminish who John Paul II was or what he did for the Church and the Papacy. But I think the changes Benedict XVI brought are far deeper and will be longer lasting.
The changes to the English translation of the liturgy, the expansion of extraordinary form, the Anglican use, etc. will be with the Church for years. He reached out to SSPX, only, not surprisingly, to find that SSPX isn’t really interested in reconciliation. (Or, as my mother said, the Latin Mass isn’t necessarily about the Latin Mass.) The guiding principle in all this seems to be that Benedict XVI did not want liturgy to be a barrier to union with the Church or to worship, whether this was for Anglo-Catholics, Latin Mass aficionados, or the ordinary Catholics at Our Lady of the Suburbs.
He also had a far better record on dealing with sexual abuse scandals than his predecessor. His episcopal appointments have been excellent.
But what really sticks out to me is his writing.
John Paul II was brilliant, but difficult. How many of us can get through Theology of the Body without Christopher West telling us what it is supposed to mean? (Or arguing about whether West himself knows what it means.) I had a recent twitter discussion about Mulieris Dignitatem trying to explain that “virginity” was about religious life, not hymens; women’s vocation to “motherhood” didn’t necessarily mean having lots of babies; and that buried in Section 31 near the end was a paragraph that proved that speaking of “feminine genius” didn’t imply gender stereotyping or rigid gender roles.
In contrast, Benedict XVI writes with a beautiful simplicity. He writes about the basics of the Christian message. His encyclicals have been about the “Good News” of the Gospel that “God is Love” and the core virtues of Christianity that St. Paul wrote about in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Charity in Truth” “Saved in Hope” and an upcoming reflection on Faith. He wrote books about the life of Jesus, the Word made Flesh.
Benedict XVI seemed to understand that only through getting back to the basics can we understand the fullness and richness of the faith. Without a proper understanding of the basics of love and charity, how can we understand complicated issues such as family life, the vocation of women, Catholic social teaching, or the Gospel of Life?
The media thinks Benedict XVI is a hardliner, an arch-conservative because he insists on the proclaiming truth of the Christian message, which, logically, means pointing out the falsehood of all that is contrary to it. But a man who grew up in Hitler’s Germany must know the danger of relativism and of the existence and reality of evil.
His final act as Pope may be one of the most profound. He stepped aside. Being Pope is a difficult job. With modern medicine able to extend our lifespans, a man may live far longer than he is able to do the job. A Pius XII or John Paul I dying suddenly on the job is more likely to be the exception than the rule. We saw this in the long slow decline of John Paul II. The once vigorous young Pope became old, frail, and weak and not able to do what he did in his younger days. While this is to be expected for all of us, Benedict XVI shows that there is no shame in a responsible abdication in favor of one better able to carry out the mission of the Church.
Our current cultural expectation is that the Pope is an old man. Will Benedict’s resignation become the norm? Will we elect sixty-something year old Popes who resign in their eighties? Such a precedent will inevitably lead to a younger and more dynamic Papacy.
But whoever is elected, we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide and protect the Church. As Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” Matt. 16:18.