Pope Benedict resigns: The power of letting go

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation with grace and humility. He was heeding the call of conscience and recognizing his … Continued

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation with grace and humility. He was heeding the call of conscience and recognizing his own human limitations.

While there have been resignations in the papacy’s past, letting go of papal power has never been framed in such a powerful way.

There is indeed power in letting go.

Letting go allows for the operation of the Holy Spirit, for it is by recognizing our own limitations we find, paradoxically, the power to transcend them. But there are also more worldly implications to the process of letting of go in this particular case. By giving up the papacy in this way, and at this time, Benedict will have the opportunity to shape the choice of his successor.

Benedict’s papacy has been marked by personal humility and a continuing reassertion of papal authority worldwide. Benedict did not include the pPapal tiara on his coat of arms, preferring instead a bishop’s mitre. He has also shown himself to be uncomfortable with the personal adulation that often accompanies the papal office. When he speaks, it is in measured cadences full of theological depth and complexity.

That theological depth and complexity has consistency reaffirmed the centrality of the teaching office of the papacy. Much has been made of papal interventions in a number of contexts: investigations of seminaries and religious orders, instructions concerning theologians, and other moves to further tighten the accountability of individual bishops and their conferences to Rome. Though these moves, Benedict has carried on the efforts of his predecessor John Paul II. In the views of both men, the modern world presents particular challenges to Christian faith. Publicly, Benedict has most often spoken of these challenges in terms of relativism, or a “dictatorship of relativism.” But underlying this provocative formulation is an even deeper concern that the very idea of Truth has become incomprehensible in the modern secularized West. Without an understanding of truth we can no longer make reasoned moral judgments that extend beyond our own immediate cultural and historical location. While assertions of papal primacy can most certainly be understood in different ways, there is no doubt that Benedict has understood that his primary task is to ensure that the truth of the Gospel is proclaimed clearly and consistently.

The cardinals who will elect Benedict’s successor will surely be concerned with continuity in the exercise of Papal teaching authority. But global Catholicism is far more diverse than many of us in the West realize. Global poverty, relations with Islam and other religions, the treatment of migrants and refugees, conflict with the nation state, religious violence and persecution-these are all issues that are of pressing concern in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The question becomes whether asserting Vatican authority helps or hinders local responses to such challenges. While many cardinals might very well agree with the outlines of Benedict’s theology, they very well may disagree about how that theology finds expression in the specific actions of the next pontiff.

Since there will be no time of mourning, the time until the conclave is quite short. This would favor a candidate that many of the cardinals already know well and who has administrative and pastoral experience on an international level. Quebec’s cardinal Marc Ouellet is such a person. He is presently the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops as well as president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. Cardinal Ouellet also has been a leading figure in the Vatican’s response to the sex abuse scandal and performed a quite public act of penance in Ireland in reparation for the violation of children and adults under the church’s care. Since Ouellet has extensive contacts with cardinals in Europe, and North and South America, he has a ready-made constituency of support if his name is brought forward.

But surprising things happen in a conclave. Cardinals often choose a candidate who has quite different personal qualities than his predecessor: witness the difference between the dramatic John Paul II and the shy Benedict XVI. It is also possible that cardinals from Asia and Africa, along with forward looking cardinals from Europe and Latin America, might very well coalesce around a candidate and change the dynamic of deliberations in a decisive way. In the end, much will depend upon Benedict himself, and the degree to which he will truly let go of papal authority not just to administer, but to persuade.

About

Mathew N. Schmalz Mathew N. Schmalz is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at The College of the Holy Cross.
Comments are closed.

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.