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.


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