11 February 2013
I'm only kidding, Herr Ratzinger. Pope Benedict actually deserves credit for setting a decent example, having decided while he still has his reason that he no longer has the stamina, going on age 86, to maintain a modern schedule of duties for the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He thus becomes the first Pope in almost 600 years to resign his office -- and the last one did so by prior agreement in order to resolve a schism within the Church. While it may be believed that the College of Cardinals, when choosing a Pope, acts on divine inspiration, so that for believers the Papacy is a life appointment unless God says otherwise, a medieval Pope who wanted to quit decreed, apparently on his own authority, that Popes had a right to do so. The present lame-duck Pontiff may have taken a more recent example to heart. It's amusing to imagine Benedict taking advice from Fidel Castro, whom he visited last year, on stepping back from the burdens of day-to-day despotism while remaining an eminence grise with an undoubted right to make his opinions known to the new administration. Ratzinger was a theological enforcer before his election and, given his age, has always seen himself as a caretaker Pope. By resigning on short notice -- he steps down at the end of this month -- he's certain to have a good deal of control over the selection of his successor, almost certainly a man of his own intellectual mold. For all we know, resigning may be Benedict's best means of dictating the succession. If you think he won't influence the conclave you have more faith than even Catholics really need. After that, Ratzinger will have to reconcile himself to being remembered far less fondly than his predecessor. John Paul II may look like the worst case of a Pope who clung to the office beyond all capacity to fulfill his duties, though my understanding is that his latter infirmity was physical rather than mental, but it's also possible that Karol Wojtyla, who started out acclaimed for his middle-aged vigor, truly endeared himself to his flock by carrying on as his health and voice deteriorated and showing himself a powerful yet vulnerable man under a mighty burden. It doesn't necessarily make sense, but John Paul may still be compared favorably with a successor for whom surrendering power may be a last attempt to maintain control. Benedict may be judged by comparison with his predecessor, but perhaps he'll be best judged by what follows him.