Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to retire Feb. 28, a well-kept secret announced Monday by the pontiff himself, took both the Roman Catholic Church and the wider world generally by surprise. But maybe it shouldn’t have.
In 2010, Benedict said that if a pope felt no longer physically, spiritually and psychologically capable of handling the demanding duties of the office, then he had a right, even an obligation, to resign.
But apparently few of the faithful took this to heart. After all, no pope had resigned since 1415, more than 70 years before Columbus first sighted the Americas. The papal deathwatch had become something of a tradition as aging pontiffs clung to life and office.
One wonders how much Benedict, 85, was influenced by his mentor and predecessor, John Paul II, who died a lingering death from Parkinson’s disease in 2005 but struggled, often in heartbreaking fashion, to carry on until the end. One had to admire John Paul’s strength of will, but still feel the pathos of the once-vigorous priest, who had weathered war and communism, shrunken within his robes and supported by attendants.
Benedict had contemplated a life in academe, as a theologian, but the church kept calling on his obvious organizational talents. He was bishop of Munich for only three months before being made a cardinal in 1977. Four years later, John Paul named him leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that protects and preserves Catholic orthodoxy. Benedict was a tireless and sometimes blunt-spoken defender of traditional tenets. He fought off the ordination of women, and he was criticized as slow to react to the church’s sexual-abuse scandal.
The timing of Benedict’s decision indicates it was not arrived at casually. Lent begins this Wednesday, giving the College of Cardinals time to convene and elect a new pope by Easter, on March 31.
Benedict had barely announced his decision when he was criticized for not continuing the tradition of dying in office. But Benedict did what he thought was best for the church, “after having examined my conscience before God.”
Preliminary plans call for him to leave the Vatican upon his successor’s election, and then go to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo, just southeast of Rome. From there, he can enter a cloistered monastery where, in privacy and peace, he can take up the academic life he had planned when he entered the priesthood 61 years ago.