I have not written anything about Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that he will step down from the papal chair. I was surprised — more surprised than I should have been had I been paying closer attention — and I am still trying to decide what I think about it. It was a prudential decision, and I have no doubt that he believes this decision to be best for the Church at this time. But I am sorry to see him go; I have a great deal of affection for this Holy Father, and I am saddened at the thought that he has found his service to us to be too much for him in his old age.
I am in no position to offer a general appraisal or summation of this pontificate, but a few highlights stand out in my mind: his beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman in England in 2010; his canonization of St. Hildegard of Bingen in 2012; his dedication to a renewal of the Church’s liturgical life, especially by granting permission for the wide(r)spread celebration of the pre-Vatican II liturgical rites and his creation of the Anglican Ordinariate (which, besides being a bridge to greater Christian unity, also has the potential to make the so-called “Anglican Use” rite more widely available, which for English-speaking Catholics can only be a good thing); and his clear and courageous speeches on numerous occasions, especially those delivered in Regensburg in 2006 and in London in 2010. On a personal note, I had the joy of seeing Pope Benedict in person on two occasions, both times in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.
Almost immediately after his announcement, pundits began speculating aloud about who might succeed him. Even people whom, I would have thought, were indifferent to or hostile to Catholicism were suddenly ready with advice. How very kind. As for myself, I have made a two-fold resolution: I am not going to read any (more) such speculations, which are too often simply self-serving wish lists, and, like Janet, I am going to begin praying now for the new pontiff, whoever he may be.
Much has been written about Benedict’s papacy in the last couple of weeks, and though I have not had time to read very much of it, here are a few of the better articles that I have come across:
- John Milbank, the brilliant Anglican theologian, has written a substantial essay drawing mostly on Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate in which he explores the “erotic politics” of Benedict’s thought — that is, the way in which the Holy Father’s understanding of love, and especially of eros (widely understood), informs his thinking about politics and the public good.
- Tracey Rowland, who has written a book on Pope Benedict’s theological thought, writes at Crisis about his intellectual milieu: his teachers and his students. This is a reminder of just how central Joseph Ratzinger has been to Catholic theology in the past fifty years. These shoes are going to be difficult to fill.
- At the New York Times Ross Douthat raises a number of concerns about the Holy Father’s decision to step down, and I admit that they resonate with me. There is a real sense, he writes, in which this decision is at odds with the idea of the papacy:
There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.
- David Warren writes that Benedict may have taken this unusual step in order to devote himself to the spiritual, rather than to the merely administrative, responsibilities with which he has been entrusted:
And in retiring to a life of prayer, this man elected Pope may be taking upon himself a Gethsemane that only he fully understands, in light of his direct experience of Church government. The weight of the malice directed towards Rome, from the world outside but also from within many Church quarters, is something that must be dealt with not only pastorally, & politically, but in a mystical way, & thus necessarily out of public view. Benedict discerns that all his waning physical powers must be concentrated on that task, leaving the governing, pastoral, & other functions (iconic, liturgical, &c) to a successor. He took the name “Benedict,” which belonged to the founder of European monasticism. It is entirely possible that he knows what he is doing.
I hope, and trust, that it is so.
Pope Benedict held his last general audience earlier today; here is video of the final sung Pater Noster and his last papal blessing. Look at that smile. How I would have loved to be there: