Since Benedict’s resignation we’ve been treated to almost two weeks of conspiracy mongering about the “real” reasons behind Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down. It’s been everything from Piers Morgan’s ceaseless yammering about his “doubts” to theories about the pope hiding out in the Vatican in fear of an arrest warrant issued by “unknown European” entities concerning clergy sexual misconduct, and still lingering hope among some that this time it really was the butler who did it.
Yet, if scandal were the reason, Benedict could have resigned well before this. He was asked about the matter point blank in 2010 by Peter Seewald in Light of the World. Here was his response:
When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from the danger and say that someone else should do it.
Perhaps I am naïve but I think the reasons he resigned are actually the reasons he gave us. We live in a world where leaders, Christian or otherwise, are resistant to giving up the reins, where people tend to hold on to power much too long, and where everyone is jockeying for influence. Pope Benedict’s willingness to let go is a refreshing contrast to all this.
And as for the claim that Benedict may try to influence the conclave and the next pope, there is no more influential person in the Catholic Church than Benedict XVI. If maximizing his influence were his goal he wouldn’t have resigned.
I think his resignation can be boiled down to three things: magnanimity, humility, and prudence. I’d like to take a moment to consider each of these qualities in turn.
Benedict XVI is often described as mild-mannered and reserved, but if we look closely, one thing that stands out is his magnanimity—he has a magna anima—a great soul. St. Thomas says, “Magnanimity by its very name denotes stretching forth of the mind to great things.” This is seen in his prolific intellectual work where he has both incisively diagnosed the intellectual crises of our time and provided a philosophical and theological framework for the New Evangelization. It can also be seen in the way in which, though he did not desire the papacy, he assumed the Petrine ministry, spoke with clarity and courage, and became beloved by millions, including millions of young people at the World Youth Days. It is also evident in his decision to step down. Magnanimity is the virtue that deals with the handling of great honors and as Aristotle tells us maintaining self-understanding in the midst of adulation. St. Thomas writes that “The essence of human virtue consists in safeguarding the good reason of human affairs, for this man’s proper good.” Benedict’s pontificate and his resignation demonstrate his virtue in dealing with great honor. He fulfilled his duty with courage and joy, and was wise enough to know when to step down.
This brings us to the second virtue I noted. To be great-souled means one must have a reverence for the truth and for reality, and this requires humility. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. Benedict is acutely aware, to use a line from the philosopher Dallas Willard, that this is “not his kingdom, it is God’s Kingdom.” He is merely the steward. Notice Benedict’s words in his announcement to resign:
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.
Benedict’s resignation was also an act of prudence understood in its classical sense—not simply being careful, but as Josef Pieper said so well, the ability to see the world as it is and acting accordingly.
The retirement age of bishops in the Catholic Church is 75 years old. Benedict will be 86 in April. Not only is his current situation a concern, so is what could happen in the next few years. He could live the next several years in productivity but he could also get weaker, suffer another stroke, and even become incapacitated to the point that he no longer is even able to resign. Canon 322 allows the pope to resign if it is “made freely.” What this means is that if he became incapacitated such that he lost control of his mental faculties, he could not resign. He is well aware of this possibility and does not think it is what the Church needs now.
One other simple, but significant thing happened here: Benedict actually admitted he is old in a world where youth is worshipped. Just this simple admission is a model and is admirable in a world where baby boomers still try to live like they are in their twenties.
Finally, I think his decision was made in the light of the experience of his predecessor Blessed John Paul II, and perhaps most important, in the context of the New Evangelization.
John Paul II became pope at the age of 58, and the world saw him as a young, athletic, and charismatic leader, a philosopher pope who went hiking and skiing and traveled the world. We also watched him grow old and weak. His public suffering was a testimony to the dignity of human life and a lesson in redemptive suffering. Man is not valuable only when he is strong and “useful.” No, he is valuable because he is man, the image of God. After a century where millions were exterminated in the name of progress and utopian politics, where abortion is said to be a right and where euthanasia is becoming more common, to see John Paul II, suffer so publicly, was a powerful witness. The fruit of his heroic generosity will last for years. Yet with the reality of human suffering also came the reality that John Paul II was unable to fully attend to all of the duties required of the pope. Benedict XVI recognized this inability in himself. He is not running away or trying to avoid suffering. He made it clear in his statement that he knows the pope must suffer. But prudence and prayer have shown him that this is not what the Church needs now.
… 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.
Here too, I think we see the underlying context of what Benedict and John Paul II have called the New Evangelization. The Church needs a pope who can manage the Church, but also promote the New Evangelization with \a strength and vigor that Benedict has determined he cannot offer.
I wish he would stay. A lot of us do. His personal witness and intellectual and moral clarity have been an inspiration. His Encyclical letter Spe Salvi, (Saved by Hope) is one of the most beautiful things I have read. Like many Catholics I feel a sense of unease—what will we do when he leaves and his light is no longer with us? We felt the same unease at the death of Blessed John Paul. But our anxiety is lessened because our trust is in the promise that Jesus made to Peter and his apostles, and lessened because our hope is in Christ, a theme so central to Benedict’s pontificate.
Benedict XVI, a great souled, humble and prudent man, decided through prayer, and wisdom that comes from a friendship with Christ, that it is time to step down and for another to take his place. I’ll take him at his word.