The Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI: Is It Health? Or Politics? Or Both?

The election of the new pope will have an element that few past conclaves did: the influence of the still-living old pope

  • Share
  • Read Later
Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful gathered at the Colosseum during the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday, April 6, 2012, in Rome

UPDATED

Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he would step down at the end of the month is stunning but not surprising for a man with experience running a critical sector of the Vatican hierarchy while his predecessor John Paul II lingered in extremis as absolute ruler of a spiritual empire of a billion living souls. The last years of John Paul II, still much admired since his death on April 2, 2005, were excruciating for the Curia, as the organization’s chief decisionmaker slowly but publicly withered away in the throes of what was believed to be Parkinson’s disease. Many of Benedict’s pronouncements over the past eight years or so — including a few made while he was yet Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — have led observers to believe he was considering resignation rather than allowing the Catholic Church to go through the ordeal again.

As cited by Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter, Benedict had already emphatically concluded that a Pope may resign if, as the Pontiff said in Light of the World, his wide-ranging 2010 interview with the journalist Peter Seewald, “he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” But Benedict added, “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it.”

(MORE: Pope Benedict XVI to Resign, Citing ‘Advanced Age’)

The resignation of a Pope is not unprecedented. Gregory XII resigned in 1415 in an act that would restore the unity of the Catholic Church, which had been fractured by schism for nearly 70 years. Gregory, who would live on for two more years, would see the election of his replacement in the orthodox line of succession to Saint Peter. Unless Pope Benedict XVI’s health deteriorates rapidly — he cited it as his reason for stepping down at the end of February — he too will see the election of his successor. And that is likely to do more than extend the Petrine tradition: Benedict XVI may actually have influence over — though not a vote — who the next Pontiff will be, furthering the chances of candidates who will continue his policies. If so, this resignation would not just have been for health reasons but will have important, if not historic, political implications. Benedict isn’t likely to be running away from anything.

The conclave that will elect the next Pope has yet to be assembled, but even if he isn’t present in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict’s living presence as the Emeritus Pontiff is bound to influence the vote. (He is past the age of eligibility of casting a vote.) This sort of informal influence has proved powerful in other cultures — particularly Japan and China, where “retired” shoguns and Emperors continued to make pivotal decisions. Thus, just by living, Joseph Ratzinger, by then the ex-Pope Benedict XVI with a title yet to be decided, will be able to champion his conservative theological and social policies and stack the decks so that a successor of like mind and spirit is enthroned.

(MORE: Text of the Pope’s Resignation Announcement)

That the Pope was physically weakening is no surprise to people who have watched his public appearances in St. Peter’s. He has been more halting in his steps, slightly slower and more difficult to make out in his speech. His brother Georg, also a cleric, said that doctors had advised the Pope to stop making transoceanic trips. As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope had headed up what was probably the most efficient bureaucracy in the Vatican; so he would have been the first to notice that things were slagging. Indeed, he may have realized from the start of his papacy that he had ascended as an aging Pope — and not the young athletic Pontiff that John Paul was when he astounded the world with his surprise election as the first Pope from Poland.

Indeed, the Pope has made his share of impolitic statements and overseen a number of scandals. To be fair, he inherited the long-running priestly molestation scandal that has damaged the church’s reputation deeply in many parts of the world, particularly the U.S. and Ireland. But the recent arrest and conviction of his manservant for passing on papal documents to a journalist (who eventually wrote a book about the less-than-savory inside workings of the Vatican) must have pained him. The convicted butler’s reason for the revelations that emerged from the so-called theft: he was afraid Benedict was not getting all the information he needed to know about the running of the church. The idea that such organizational disarray had come right into his personal office must have pained the Pope and, if it reflected a failure in physical ability, contributed to his perception that the time had come to leave the papacy in healthier hands.

(PHOTOS: 25 of Pope Benedict’s Best Hats)

The question, then, is who will be the next Pope. While Benedict has been assiduous, as had John Paul II, of expanding the global representation of the College of Cardinals, speculation has been rife in the Holy See that the Italian contingent, which had been almost the sole producers of Popes for centuries, wants the papacy back. They will have to deal with a host of conservative candidates from the rest of the world, particularly Latin America. (The last so-called great hope of liberal Catholics, the Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini died in August 2012.) The role of the Italians in the Curia, however, remains strong — at times perhaps stronger than any living Pope’s. Every conclave develops its own dynamic and the world must simply wait for the white smoke to emerge from the Sistine Chapel to try to figure out what has happened. But in this particular case, a living Pope — along with the Holy Spirit — will be guiding the proceedings as well as the first steps of the next ruler of the Roman Catholic Church.

110 comments
bundarrah
bundarrah

I'm  going to call Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Cardinal Archbishop of Lyon as the new Pope. He's the right age, he was born in Morocco and understands Islam, he has a fine mind and steel in his backbone. Moreover he has John Paul 11's charisma.

Ygdrasille
Ygdrasille

I love it! "One thing is certain. No one will lament his passing." Doing a little "projecting"? One thing IS certain: The world is full of stupid people.

RuthLafler
RuthLafler

"things were slagging" -- I do not think that word means what you think it means. "To slag" means to "criticize, abuse, malign, slam, insult, mock, slate, slang, deride, berate, slander, diss (slang, chiefly U.S.)." Apparently the author was considering both "slacking" and "lagging" and conflated them. But doesn't Time have any copy editors anymore?

JeromeElam
JeromeElam

@TIME @TIMEWorld Magdalene Laundries in Buffalo NY: An American survivor's interview (Exclusive): http://t.co/g8gDdsLp via @wtcommunities

mladenm
mladenm

Retired bishops and archbishops remain influential in the Church and retired Pope will be even more so. However, one cannot forget that Ratzinger was Woytila's chief ideologue even before becoming pope himself. They selected every Cardinal with voting right and is imossible new Pope will be so different then last two. I'm not sure Church is right now ready for non-European Pope, so prime contender will probably be from Southern Europe, maybe from Latin America. 

xerxeska
xerxeska

@TIME World Only the Pope knows. But one thing is certain. His departure will not be lamented. The Church will continue without him.

JeromeElam
JeromeElam

@TIME @TIMEWorld Magdalene Laundries in Buffalo NY: An American survivor's interview (Exclusive): http://t.co/g8gDdsLp via @wtcommunities

seralene
seralene

@TIME @TIMEWorld he's going into hiding.

MaureenHawkins
MaureenHawkins

Given the potential choices,  it's obvious the Church will continue to be irrelevant in the 21st century.

cancunfun
cancunfun

@TIME @TIMEWorld guess this is true. The last Pope to resign was 600years ago.

Donnyisalive
Donnyisalive

@TIME @TIMEWorld Hes the man who hid all the child sex crimes for Pope John Paul, maybe the guilt has caught up to him. #hypocrite

goatobrien
goatobrien

@PopeBXVInews Thank you Holy Father for all of your sacrifice for the Holy Mother Church.

phreakincool
phreakincool

@TIME @TIMEWorld It's politics...never what they say. Remember when his butler got busted for stealing secrets? Coincidence? I think not.

PhilosopherBum
PhilosopherBum

@TIME @TIMEWorld The pope realized he was talking to imaginary ppl. and wants to get real , like a real car

pamarcastro
pamarcastro

@linapc especulaciones propias de prensa secular. Creo que es una decisión responsable, humilde y honesta, por el bien de la Iglesia

pamarcastro
pamarcastro

@r_Montenegro especulaciones propias de prensa secular. Creo que es una decisión responsable, humilde y honesta, por el bien de la Iglesia

hillyer09
hillyer09

@TIME its the pope, should we be thinking like this?

jimconnor50
jimconnor50

Oh please!  Spiritual Empire?  Absolute ruler?  Please!  No practicing Catholic would recognize the Church they know in such language.  I've been a Catholic all my life, and there is nothing absolute about the Pope's rule.  The Church may not be a democracy, but that doesn't make it the Soviet Union.  

Guiller91337849
Guiller91337849

@TIME @TIMEWorld The ignorance of Howard is incredible he is not aware of the politics of the Vatican maybe he will do in China

MKTsharif
MKTsharif

@TIME #PopeBenedict XVI leave him be.

JRnajem
JRnajem

@jessyabouhabib Or illuminatis...

naijachux
naijachux

Where are the roman catholics? The pope is really being bashed here

RobertPFrancis
RobertPFrancis

THEY had an opening at a nearby walmart in the fabrics department. They said they were hiring Nazis with a flare for fashion.  

Informed_Dissent
Informed_Dissent

I'll make a bold prediction. The next Pope will be... a man. Yes, just as has been the case for the last 2,000 years. The Roman Cat'lic Church needs change and reform. It needs a woman for once! The all-male group that chooses a successor cannot (or could they?) reverse tradition. Thus, they will blindly follow the past and go with a man again. Though pathetic and regressive, that is real life. 

On this topic, although it's a novel and not real life, I just read (Amazon) The Prophetess of Islam, by Gary Nelson. The main character, a young woman from Pakistan, meets angel Gabriel and Prophet Muhammad on Earth. They are sent to her by Allah. Their mission is to guide and protect her as she reforms and modernizes Islam for the betterment of girls and women. Oh, the heroine is also a lesbian. Good for her! Shake things up and reflect the reality of humanity.

The novel's heroine challenged the status quo; the Catholic church needs someone to do the same when they name a new Pope. Seriously, put a woman in charge. Half your followers (or more) are female, Cardinals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH7QGnpRlbU


jerry48
jerry48

@MaureenHawkins all churches are irrelevant and will continue to be ! ALL OF THEM !

God unites, religions divide !

rcscwc
rcscwc

@phreakincool 

Stealing secrets or blowing the whistle?

jamp_rd
jamp_rd

@YolandaMart la renuncia viene porque le pidieron que mediara en el lio del prd

jerry48
jerry48

@RobertPFrancis  do you mean that the white supremacists, the nazis groups, KKK etc ... of America are catholics ??? LOL

jimconnor50
jimconnor50

@RobertPFrancis   Thank you for your unsolicited opinion.  You have just offended 1.2 billion Catholics.  a world record for the Internet.

Catholic2013
Catholic2013

@Informed_Dissent I am one of those female follower (young and educated, too, I might add) and completely disagree with your opinion. I believe God anointed males to the priesthood, but that does not mean females are renegaded to second-class citizen. Case in point: the most respected and loved figure besides God is Mary, a woman. Please respect the belief of others; it would make your mama proud.