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

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.

shutterstock_186566975
Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

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.

shutterstock_186090179
How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

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.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

pews
Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

2337221655_c1671d2e5e_b
Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

bible
Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

csl_wall_paper
What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.