Today, Acton’s Rome office and the world were stunned by what the Dean of the College of Cardinals said was a “bolt out of the blue”: just after midday Benedict XVI informed the public that he would be stepping down as the Catholic Church’s pontiff and one of the world’s preeminent moral and spiritual leaders, effective on February 28. He will be the first pope to abdicate voluntarily the Seat of St. Peter in nearly 600 years. The last one to resign was Gregory XII in 1415 as part of deal to end the great Western Schism.
Pope Benedict XVI, a disciplined, humble and soft-spoken German, is certainly not known for Roman caprice nor does he have a flare for the dramatic. Notwithstanding, he surprised us all in a brief statement issued in perfect Latin (translated below) at the end of a consistory held in the Apostolic Palace for causes of canonizations:
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
Since he took office in April of 2005, Benedict has been outspoken and an active reformer of the Roman Curia, the Church’s legal canons, the statutes of limitations on sexual abuse cases, and was even ground-breaking as a pontiff while embracing social media like Twitter, issuing his first tweets to evangelize the world at the ripe-old age of 85 last December.
Before becoming pope, he served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, essentially the Catholic Church’s theological watchdog. During his historic tenure, he led the way for the Church’s official condemnation of liberation theology, the socio-economic movement that had spread among Marxist and other radically left-leaning clergy in Central and South America amidst the liberal Latin American political upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s.
Benedict XVI has done much for the Church as an extraordinary moral and spiritual teacher during in his brief, yet prolific 7-plus years as pope. He traveled five continents and penned several daring social encyclicals, apostolic letters, and scholarly books to advance the timeless teachings of Christianity in the modern age. We wish him well and pray for his delicate health.
What will certainly be regarded as one of his longest-lasting intellectual and spiritual legacies is his profound teaching on “the dictatorship of relativism”, as first pronounced in a homily he delivered on the eve of his papal election. Institutions and individuals from all faiths involved in the culture war to defend true human liberty, like the Acton Institute, have received tremendous encouragement and enlightenment from Benedict who taught us, namely, that there is no logical or moral sense in seeking liberty without first seeking truth.
Without truth, as Benedict says, freedom degrades into selfish license and narcissistic conceit “which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
While Benedict retires to a quiet life of prayer and contemplation and the Catholic Church prepares for another exciting conclave, we must take his fundamental teaching with us as our cornerstone in continuing to defend responsible, truth-seeking human freedom. It is our first, fundamental step in leading the good and virtuous life.