When Lady Diana died in a car crash in 1997, the world held its breath. Every news outlet reported on the tragedy. Even before her death, the “queen of hearts” had been the subject of many documentaries. Her funeral was hailed as the “TV event of the year,” not unlike her marriage several years earlier. Royal news is good for TV ratings, even when they it is tragic.
As Catholics, we are currently reminded of sudden public hype. The pope resigns, and the world takes notice. It’s good to remind ourselves: The pope is God’s humble servant. He is the successor of St. Peter. And, above all else, he is the Bishop of Rome. He has around two thousand colleagues, who serve as bishops in dioceses around the world. They all look towards Rome – but the basic organizational unit of the Catholic Church is the parish, and then the local diocese.
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI will undoubtedly disappoint all those who pray to the “Holy Father” in Rome rather than to Our Lord in Heaven. But Jesus himself said that we should worship nobody on earth as our father.
I have always admired Benedict for his unpretentious approach to the papacy: He did not cultivate an aura of sacrality. No 24/7 service. A pope who enjoys his vacations. A pope who writes books – he’s really an academic – that comment on theological discussions. Benedict, the sharp-witted German theologian, approached his papacy like the sombre ethos of theologians demanded it: In service of the truth. Progressing towards the gospel. Protecting the Catholic Church against splintering and atomism.
In the first half of the 20th century, the theologian Rudolf Bultmann attempted to de-mythologize the gospel. His work sparked considerable criticism, but his lasting legacy lies in his assertion that Jesus Christ was not an otherworldly being but acted right in this world. The resignation of Benedict XVI has now opened the floodgates for de-mythologizing the papacy after several years of trending in the other direction. Even the papacy is an appointment, a public office in service of dioceses and local parishes.
Yet these days, the Lady Di effect is on display once more: All eyes are on Rome. It’s a bit hypocritical – like the time when supposedly free and emancipated women ask to be led down the aisle by their father, or when committed democrats discuss the upcoming resignation of the Dutch Queen Beatrix with anticipation. It’s easy to talk about change within the Catholic Church, but ecclesiastical associations are often filled with people who encourage flexibility in others while they cling to their positions until the bitter end. The Christian flock is more conservative than we think.
This also explains why Benedict XVI suddenly appears as a great reformer: He resisted the infantile fear of a loss of attachments. Those who looked to him for guidance were often referred elsewhere. Benedict saw himself as a pope of the people, and as a temporary occupant of the papal chair.
The childish lamentations of Catholic Christians must be replaced by a bit of progressive thinking. Instead of trying to ground the Church’s raison d’être in Jesus’ death on the cross and in his spilled blood, we must ask ourselves: What would the risen son of God want to see in his Church today? Benedict’s resignation (and his break with an important papal tradition) should encourage the bishops to be more original as well. Dioceses may differ from one another. Lay members of Catholic orders and organizations should feel encouraged as well. And instead of gazing longingly towards Rome and towards the Holy Father, Catholics everywhere should rediscover their inner spirituality: From baptism and confirmation to prayer and brotherly love.
Finally, the pope’s resignation might dispel the myth that the Church – especially in the West – acts as a foundational pillar of modern society. In his Freiburg Address in 2011, Benedict reminded dioceses and Catholic believers of the importance of becoming less “worldly.” It might pain us to hear that, but it allows for an intimate and introspective connection with God. The pope’s resignation and his indication that he will devote himself to a life of prayer are the best interpretations of his call to de-secularize the Church. Maybe this runs contrary to many traditions. But the Church can best serve the world – Benedict explicitly pointed to this duty in his resignation statement – by breaking with established and worldly principles. Instead of seeking power, the Church can seek strength.
Read more in this debate: David Berger.