There is so much being written about the abdication of Pope Benedict that it is difficult to get a handle on how things stand with both his move and preparations for the future. What follows is an attempt to discern the state of play, but it may well be obsolete by the time it is posted!
There has been, not surprisingly, a great deal of discussion about Pope Benedict’s motives for abdicating, and also about what impact this will have on the conclave.
What is becoming more openly accepted by all except the extreme fringe of secular society is that the pope is not fleeing the clerical abuse crisis. Despite the withering assault of the mainstream media, and reheated stale untruths about, for example, his role in the Fr Murphy affair in Milwaukee, anyone who looks calmly at the record of verifiable facts will see that Pope Benedict has acted firmly against the culture of abuse, spoken strongly in condemnation of it and sought to heal this wound in the life of the Church and its members. It would be strange indeed for him to withdraw from the fray when he is beginning to make positive gains in the crisis. He has weathered the worst of the storm already; and we know he is not afraid to stand his ground and speak the truth. Even some who do not normally support the Pope have written in his defence on this matter.
What seems to have prompted the pope to move now is that the Church is in a period of relative calm, and because he feels his stamina significantly flagging. There is the possibility that there is an undisclosed medical crisis, and the curia is not shy of keeping such matters secret, as they did when the pope had a fall last year during his trip to Mexico and Cuba. But given the gravity of his actions, it is hard to see why the pope would keep any medical crisis secret.
The Pope’s brother Georg is consistently stating that the Pope is acting in light of his failing powers and for the good of the Church. Many are reading into this a sign that the infighting of the curia has taken its toll on the pope and he feels unable to overcome it. The Vatileaks scandal revealed much of the curial tension; and in recent days Cardinal Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, has apparently acted to reverse a decision made by the recently appointed head of the CDF, Archbishop Mueller, in the matter of a formerly Catholic university in Lima. The picture that is slowly emerging is of a curia, and some parts of the wider Church, which are not supporting the pope as they should, but in fact undermining him and his mission. It seems he has discerned that a younger and more vigour hand needs to rein in the various faction in the curia, and the wider Church. He has not the energy to do it, and it is a challenge that must be faced for the good of the Church. I imagine it is this sort of information that will filter through to the cardinals in greater detail, and it will inform their deliberations in conclave. The new pope will have an implicit mission from the cardinals to deal with the curial divisions firmly and quickly.
Going by the Vatican bulletin released today, it will be left to the new pope to resolve the status of the Lefebvrists. Their Bishop Fellay had hoped that Pope Benedict might make them a final gesture in their favour before the end of his pontificate. It is now clear he will not. Nor do they deserve one. As Fr Z suggests, it is they who need to be making some gestures, and quickly.
Assessments have been coming in from all quarters of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, and Fr Z collect a few together on 14 February, to wit:
• Garry Wills [ex-seminarian]: “What we really need are no priests.”
• James Carroll [ex-priest]: The pope “has seen only a solemn obligation to defend the church.”
• Richard Sipe [ex-priest]: “Certainly, he did a lot, but it was all reactionary.”
• Daniel Maguire [ex-priest]: The “scandal of the papacy [is] one of the last absolute monarchies in a democratizing world.”
• Ronald Lauder, president, World Jewish Congress: “The papacy of Benedict elevated Catholic-Jewish relations to an unprecedented level.”
• Abraham Foxman, national director, ADL: “He [the pope] was good for the Jews.”
• Rabbi Yona Metzger, Israel’s chief Ashkenazic rabbi: Benedict’s papacy exhibited “the best relations ever between the church and the chief rabbinate.”
• Imam Hassan Qazwini, Islamic Center of America: “I have so much admiration for the pope, for being honest and humble.”
• Nihad Awad, national director, Council on American-Islamic Relations: “We offer the American Muslim community’s best wishes to Pope Benedict XVI.”
• Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general, World Evangelical Alliance: “I appreciate his [the pope’s] courage of ideas…and his boldness in warning us of the dangers of moral relativism….”
• Rev. R. Albert Mohler, president, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “Pope Benedict has offered a brave and intelligent defense of truth against a relativist tide.”
The first four, disaffected Catholics of a sort, reveal their bias. Far more generous, and balanced, are assessments from the non-Catholics, those representing Judaism, Islam and Protestant Christianity. It just shows that the mainstream media can grossly misrepresent the true mood and opinion. Yesterday 138 Muslim scholars issued a similarly positive opinion of Pope Benedict. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel was equally positive about Pope Benedict and his legacy with regard to the Jewish people.
What can we hope from Papa Ratzi in the future? It seems he will get an emeritus bishop’s pension of €2500 per month. He will of course be living at Mater Ecclesiae within the Vatican City State, with a small household, all of which will be maintained by the Vatican. It is generally assumed he will write more. After his speech last week to the clergy of Rome, more of which later, it can only be hoped, if it is not too late, that he might author a commentary on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It would be a mammoth task for a tired octogenerian, but it might be hoped that he has copious notes already prepared, and last week’s speech on the “real Council” suggests there is still some fire in the belly of the pontiff. The expected encyclical on faith which was expected to be published in this Year of Faith, and so complete a trilogy that so far includes encyclicals on love and hope, is destined not to be, at least not as an encyclical of Pope Benedict. His successor might publish one, or Benedict might write one not as pontiff but as pontiff emeritus, and thus not as an encyclical.
After 28 February the already-significant interest in the impending conclave will heighten dramatically. It has been suggested that Pope Benedict might issue a decree allowing a conclave earlier than the current earliest date of 15 March. Today’s Vatican bulletin confirmed the possibility of an imminent motu proprio concerning the conclave, but did not seem to confirm that this would affect the date the conclave would begin. That is still a matter for the cardinals, not Pope Benedict.
It will not be of much use to speculate as to whom might be Benedict’s successor. Names being touted include Cardinal Scola of Milan, Cardinal Ouellet formerly of Montreal and now at the Vatican, Cardinal Ravasi of the Vatican and currently preaching the papal Lenten retreat. Cardinal Turkson, whom the media touted from the outset, seems to have blotted his copybook after apparently coming close to campaigning for the papacy. His recent remarks linking the abuse crisis with homosexuality will not have helped matters with the media, and the cardinals may shy away from a too controversial candidate, however right they think he might be on this score.
Of course, there is another candidate that the conclave can elect, or rather re-elect: Benedict XVI.