The pope has resigned. He will be eulogized in history books as the German interim pope. He has demystified the highest office of the Catholic Church, he has stripped the papacy of its divine aura. Imagine the situation – which will soon become reality – of having two popes in Rome, one retired and the other one officiating. Suddenly, the papacy will seem less divine and more worldly than in past centuries.
The guiding star of the Catholic Church, the papacy, has dimmed considerably. The step taken by Joseph Ratzinger on February 11th in the year of the Lord 2013 will provide guidance to future popes as well. Newly emerging questions hint at the shifting nature of the Church’s highest office: Will the emeritus pope have access to a bodyguard, to a personal office, to a driver? When he dies, will he be buried with full papal honors? Will church bells around the world ring in his memory? Will he help to elect his successor? Or will he supervise the election and forsake his own vote? How will he be addressed in the future? “His Retired Holiness”?
Benedict’s resignation opens the doors to further reforms of the Catholic Church and disproves critics who regarded him as too steadfast. The most frequent argument invoked against reforms of the Catholic Church goes like this: ‘Of course we can change one thing or another. But who would dare to challenge traditions that have survived for millennia?’ That argument has suddenly become less persuasive.
The pope has single-handedly ended one of the Church’s traditions: the almost divine reverence for the papacy. One statement undid the work for virtually every pope since the reign of Boniface VIII in the year 1300: the expansion of papal powers – not the spiritual leadership, but real, worldly executive power. For centuries, popes cemented their power. In 1870, the dogma of papal infallibility in matters of theology and ecclesiastical traditions drove that process to its ultimate extreme. Today, the pope has the final say in virtually all bishop appointments worldwide. When a theological question needs to be addressed, all eyes turn towards Rome. Benedict XVI has now torn it apart, and it remains to be seen whether he is fully aware of the consequences of his resignation.
Many Catholics were raised in the belief that a pope does not resign. He is an unchallenged sovereign who follows Christ into death. The purple coloring of the cardinals’ robes hints at the blood spilled by Christian martyrs throughout the ages: their blood, which once seeped into the sandy ground of the Colosseum in Rome, gave testimony of their faith in the messiah, in the story of crucifixion and resurrection. John Paul II regarded it as his personal martyrdom to remain in office until death. Joseph Ratzinger has now rejected that logic in a truly revolutionary fashion. He looked for guidance not to the traditions of the Catholic Church but within his own conscience.
His statement exploded like a bomb! The idea that a Christian’s highest authority is his own conscience isn’t only found in Lutheran circles but has been embraced by the Catholic Church as well. But let’s not forget that one of the controversies that sparked the Reformation focused on the relationship between the autonomous conscience and the duties of clerical office. “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” – thus Martin Luther ended his speech at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Now the pope has weighed conscience against tradition, and has chosen conscience. That’s gigantic.
At the same time, Benedict knew even at the beginning of his pontificate that he would never be able to fill the shoes of his predecessor. One of the most vivid sentences of his first public papal address remains his proclamation that “I am a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.” Often forgotten is the preceding sentence: “After the great John Paul, the cardinals have elected me.”
When John Paul II was still alive, rumors spread periodically that the Polish pope might resign. A thoughtless but correct remark by Joseph Ratzinger only fueled the discussion. The then-cardinal reminded his fellow clerics that ecclesiastical law allowed for papal resignations. The relevant passage had been added by John Paul himself under the guidance of the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Joseph Ratzinger. He knew what he was talking about. But rumor also has it that Ratzinger cried over his thoughtless remark when he met with pope John Paul II soon afterwards. Public discussions had seized his words and distorted them. In the end, it sounded as if the German cardinal recommended a papal resignation. Evidently, Ratzinger is a sensitive man.
What’s next for the Church, now that Benedict XVI has terminated the isolating dominance of the papacy? If the pope doesn’t rule the Catholic Church, who does?
In the 21st century, the Catholic Church will be a Church of different speeds. Some parts of the world might allow priests to marry while other regions will remain steadfastly opposed – but they will all be called Catholic. The Council will become the primary steering committee of the Church once more. The pope will preside over it and will moderate discussions. He will become primus inter pares, the first among his brothers. No less than that, but no more either.
It’s a time of tremendous opportunities, and many within the Church’s hierarchy will regard them suspiciously as threats. Behind closed doors, they fear for their posts and powers, and wonder whether the Church will continue to move along its time-honored path. Change sparks fear. Many Catholics will feel uncertain as well; and not only the truly devout. A papal resignation is a veritable novelty. Who can embrace this sense of uncertainty and turn it into confidence? If the wandering preacher-man from Galilee really cares about his Church, now would be a good time to make it known. According to the New Testament, one of Jesus’s favorite wisdoms was to “fear not!”
Who will become pope? How will the life of Benedict XVI change when he becomes Joseph Ratzinger again on March 1st? Can we imagine a conclave while the old pope is still alive? Nobody would have expected this pope to surprise us. But he did, and he thumbed his nose at us.
Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: Hitler’s long shadow