The first pope to resign was Celestine V, born Pietro da Morrone, who lived the life of a devout recluse when he was proclaimed pope in 1294 to break a twoyear stalemate in the College of Cardinals. He was already over 80 years old. Not feeling up to the task, he resigned shortly thereafter, hoping to return to his monastic life. Instead, he was imprisoned by his successor, Boniface VIII, for fear that a rival faction would turn Celestine into an antipope.
The former pope died after about a year in captivity. His successor, one of the most ambitious popes of the Middle Ages, was plunged into a disastrous confrontation with the king of France that ended with Boniface’s temporary imprisonment in the weeks before his death.
The strange ultralife of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, which ended with his death on Saturday (31st) at the age of 95, was not so dramatic or tumultuous. But like Celestine’s Ultralife, it was not an example that would encourage future papal resignations. For nearly a decade, the former Joseph Ratzinger played a peculiar and fuzzy role as “pope emeritus,” neither fully reclusive nor formally active, while his successor, Pope Francis, attempted to dismantle important parts of his work.
The former pope vowed to live the rest of his life “hidden from the world” and is believed to be hoping to see his legacy safe. Instead, he experienced a postpontificate full of ambiguous gestures in response to a Vatican that, thanks to the mysteries of divine providence, had been handed over to its longtime adversaries.
Rereading what I wrote when Bento announced his retirement in 2013 is an odd experience, as much of the analysis has been contradicted a few years after his retirement. At the time, I argued that as Pope and prior to this head teacher of John Paul II, Benedict had worked tirelessly to prevent the disruptions that followed Vatican II the brutal decline in mass visitors in the western world, the wars in the area Liturgy and sexual ethics divided the church.
A great theologian, a member of the brilliant generation that advised the bishops of Vatican II, Benedict put his intelligence at the service of continuity, affirmed the fundamental beliefs of the Church, defended traditional piety against academic revisionists, and argued throughout his life that Vatican Council 2 had not simply overwritten the Church that existed centuries before it.
This work made him an intellectual inspiration for many Catholics, especially converts, who sought a synthesis of supernatural reason and religion. The influence of his writings from his “Introduction to Christianity” to the trilogy on the life of Jesus he wrote while he was pope must outlast the fame of John Paul and Francis. It also earned him many enemies, especially among progressive Catholics, who viewed his persistence in orthodoxy as punishment and for whom the church needed a revolution to fulfill God’s purposes in the modern world.
Until his resignation, however, his quest for stability and continuity seemed to be tentatively successful. It seemed that he handed his successor a true synthesis of the Church (despite certain tensions and difficulties) before and after Vatican II and that his efforts had saved Catholicism from the divisions that other global Christian communions (Anglicans, Methodists) saw thereafter divided the social revolutions of the 1960s.
However, what his resignation produced was not what Benedict had hoped. Instead of another conservative, the assembled cardinals chose an unpredictable outsider as his successor. And Francis’ pontificate was soon marked by a sweeping push for liberalization, a notable change in personnel and policy, and the resumption of many of the debates from the 1970s that Benedict had been trying to resolve.
That agenda has yet to produce the church that progressive Catholicism craves. Francis often seems to have pushed for changes on controversial issues, from communion for the divorced and remarried to the celibacy rule for priests, only to choose a more ambiguous course. And in certain cases, as part of his odd postretirement role, Benedict made intellectual interventions that seemed to serve as a warning to his successor not to go too far.
It is true that the Franciscan era has brought the Church back into a state of open theological division. The progressive churches of Northern Europe, led by the German bishops, are pushing for a revolution liberal positions on sexual issues, secular leadership and intercommunion with Protestants.
The most conservative hierarchy in the US is viewed by Francis allies as dangerously rebellious and accused of tolerating a rightwing spirit. And after all of Benedict’s efforts to reconcile traditionalists with Vatican II by making way for the Latin Mass in the modern church, Francis again imposed severe restrictions on its celebration, pushing traditionalists back into schism.
Under this pressure, the vision of continuity and stability propagated by Benedict is being dismantled on both sides on the left by the idea of Vatican II as an ongoing revolution, a council whose work will never end, and on the right . through a mixture of pessimism and paranoia, an unconservative distancing from papal authority, the end of which is difficult to predict.
It seems very difficult for any admirer of Bento to look at what happened after his resignation and see a justification for his resignation, a manifestation of the will of the Holy Spirit in action.
At the same time, his full legacy will be felt for decades or even centuries. All we can say about his strange years as Pope Emeritus is that the way Pope Benedict XVI attempted to govern the Church to preserve its institutional and theological cohesion was challenged and, in part, reversed. But Joseph Ratzinger, the scholar, theologian and writer, Joseph Ratzinger, the defender of a particular conception of Catholic Christianity his struggle has only just begun.
Translated by Clara Allain
CURRENT LINK: Did you like this text? Subscriber can share five free hits of any link per day. Just click the blue F below.