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

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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


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.