Yesterday, the 266th Pope, Benedict XVI, became the first successor of St. Peter to resign since Pope Gregory XII stepped down as part of schism 598 years ago.
On hearing the news, yours truly’s first thought was that the 85 year old pontiff was resigning so he could still have some, perhaps extensive, control over the choice of his successor. Benedict may have wanted to insure that he was replaced by a conservative in his ideological mold, only younger and stronger so that the Church could accelerate to a sprint what seems to many of us to be the its current brisk jog back to pre-Vatican II days.
But about two minutes of reflection shot that theory down. After 27 years of Pope John Paul II and eight years of Benedict XVI, who differed in personality and temperament but not in their approach to the faith, the College of Cardinals is filled, nearly exclusively, with conservatives. Short of a miracle, there is little chance of anyone who thinks much differently from Benedict becoming his successor. The new pope, in all likelihood, will be a younger, more vigorous, perhaps more charismatic, and maybe even more conservative version of Benedict XVI. That would have been the case whether Benedict resigned or died while holding the Chair of St. Peter.
The Pope stepped down for the reason he said he stepped down: he was too tired and sick to continue serving his God and his people. There was no more to it than that.
As my regular readers know, I am no fan of Benedict XVI, primarily because of his tendency to “reinterpret” Vatican II to irrelevance or meaninglessness and his near obsession with Papal authority, the latter of which manifested itself most dyspeptically in the Vatican’s crackdown on large swaths of the American sisterhood for “radical feminist themes inconsistent with the Catholic faith.” The expensive designer shoes didn’t help, either. Regardless of what I or you think about him, though, the Pope’s resignation is perhaps his finest hour. The Pope is 85 years old and in poor health. He is, of course, concerned about his own health, as all of us are. However, he is more concerned with the health of the Church. Benedict realizes that he is no longer capable of providing the leadership that the Church needs at any time, and especially at this troubled juncture in its history. This decision was doubtless made after extensive prayer and meditation with the Boss...and it was a very good decision.
For the good of the Church, the Pope stepped down to hand the reins to a younger man. That in itself would be a gracious, magnanimous, faith filled gesture. But to the extent it sets a precedent, that it tells future pontiffs that it is okay to step down when they are no longer capable of leading the world’s 2.25 billion Catholics, it was an even greater, more enduring step that should serve the Church well for centuries.