On Feb. 11 the Vatican confirmed that Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, known to most of the world as Pope Benedict XVI, has decided to resign his post, leaving the Holy See vacant for a reason other than papal death for the first time since 1417, when Pope Gregory XII resigned to resolve the Western (‘Great’) Schism. Pope Gregory XII, however, was forced into resignation by a specially formed ecumenical council. The last time a pope stepped down of his own volition was in 1294, when Pope Celestine V retired five months after his appointment due to political impotence, an action that soon led to his imprisonment at the hands of his predecessor.
Returning to contemporary Vatican politics, the break in the 719-year tradition of popes sticking to their post until death was formalized on Feb. 28. The announcement, which shocked most of the world’s Catholics, including those working within the Vatican itself, was delivered in front of a collection of cardinals gathered to discuss the canonization of three new saints. His reasoning was simple and humble: “Before God, I have come to the certainty of my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” The 85-year-old German bishop realized that he was simply too old to carry on with the responsibility of leading the world’s 1.16 billion Catholics in their spiritual lives. Benedict, who was one of the oldest popes ever to serve the Holy See, has already outlived the average modern pope by 11 years. He has carried a pacemaker since he was a cardinal, has lived through multiple strokes and has been suffering through age-related health concerns for over a decade. These concerns were so dire that he had hoped to resign as a cardinal at the customary age of 75, staying at his post only at the request of Pope John Paul II. For all intents and purposes, Benedict was, at the time of his election in 2005, already a man who was in no shape to assume the responsibilities of the papacy. It is insane to believe that any 85 year-old, let alone one with an already long history of grave medical concerns, could or should take on such a cardinal (pun hugely intended) position.
However, tradition is still unrelentingly conservative tradition in the Catholic world, and the Pope’s announcement stirred huge amounts of apprehension. Benedict’s decision was ultimately accepted and, at least officially, respected by the world’s political and religious leaders. Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, the archbishop of Lima, called the resignation a “great message of humility and a tribute to the truth.” U.S. President Barack Obama wished Benedict and the Catholic cardinals well, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who presides over a population that was far more heavily affected by the resignation, recognized that Benedict made his decision in good faith and that it was “inspired by the will to serve the church to the end.” Still many Catholics have not yet come to terms with the resignation. Common sentiment is that the Papal conclave, the meeting of the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, is to at least some degree an attempt to divine the will of God. If it were God’s will for Benedict to serve out the papal role, they reason, surely there is something very much wrong with his abdication of the responsibility.
Theological concerns aside, I argue that while a break in so many centuries of tradition is in itself distasteful, we ought to happily embrace Benedict’s resignation. Practical concerns do play into this thought: historically popes have had shorter life spans than they do currently and have simply not generally been faced with the prospect of presiding at such advanced ages. His resignation has already sparked conversation amongst Catholic leaders and academics about considerations for age caps in the future elections of popes, either official or unofficial. More importantly, however, Pope Benedict XVI was simply dreadful. It is widely acknowledged that the abdication of his seat is the most meaningful legacy he has left the office. In terms of policy that he either supported or enacted, he was disastrous, if not criminal. This is the guy who, when faced with Africa’s debilitating AIDS epidemic, in 2005 categorically condemned the use of condoms. It is difficult to even imagine the crippling effect this would have had on anyone fool enough to listen to him. Moreover, in Africa, a continent plagued by poverty, severe under-education and very high religious influence (three phenomena that by no means of coincidence are frequently observed to exist simultaneously), one can imagine that the pope’s message did not fall on deaf ears. We are talking about the leader who not only failed to take serious action against the worldwide sexual abuse of children at the hands of their (sometimes globally prominent) Catholic priests, but who on several occasions acted to shield the pedophile priests and to silence their victims. This is the pope who spent substantial resources on propagating the anti-homosexual hate campaign, who blessed Ugandan parliamentary speaker Rebecca Kadaga, backer of the infamous Uganda Anti-Homosexuality (‘Kill the Gays’) Bill.
Had the now Pope Emeritus any sense of decency or dignity he would have resigned long ago, in response to any one of these critical and devastating failures. Sadly, the papacy has frequently been filled by men devoid of either feature (research the career of Pope Pius XII, or ‘Hitler’s Pope’, to learn more), and such a gesture was probably too much to hope for. Let us hope that the next pope holds a regard for humanity that surpasses his dogmatic conservatism and that he focuses more on the well-being of Catholic parishioners than he does on the prestige of his church.