Pope Benedict XVI is to resign at the end of this month after nearly eight years as the head of the Catholic Church, saying he is too old to continue at the age of 85. The unexpected development - the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years - surprised governments, Vatican-watchers and even his closest aides. The Vatican says it expects a new Pope to be elected before Easter. (1)
The Pope spoke of his failing strength of mind of body, which he said "in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: "You will no doubt have many questions but I believe we will need a few days to organise ourselves because this announcement has taken us all by surprise." Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, said today's announcement came as "a bolt out of the blue".
What is clear is that the Vatican were not aware of this. What I've not seen said so far, but what I'd guess to be the case, is that he wanted his departure to be a "fait accompli". By announcing it in such a public manner, there was no opportunity for anyone to talk him out of it, or persuade him otherwise. One it was out in the media, it could not be unsaid, and he had circumvented any difficulties which may have been placed in his way.
Austin Ivereigh from Catholic Voices media organisation said: "He's set a precedent by what he's done today. I think it'll be very hard for future Popes ever to say, as John Paul II did: "I must remain until the very end." I think the fact that he saw John Paul II in a state of decline, where effectively he became a placeholder, unable to take decisions, was probably also a major factor in his deciding to leave. For example, in 2010, when he was interviewed for the book "Light of the World", he said: "If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,"
It might be noted that Mexican child abuser the late Father Marcel Macie was left untouched by Pope John Paul II, and one of the main reasons for taking no decisive action against him and others is that by that time the Pope was too mentally enfeebled to take any decisions even had he wanted to. Father Marie was sent into exile immediately upon Benedict's accession to the papacy.
And yet it also emerged soon after that he had issued an order to Catholic bishops asserting the church's right to investigate cases of abuse behind closed doors. The Catholic hierarchy under his leadership never seems to have come to terms with the proper way to deal with cases of children abused by priests. The Cloyne report was highly critical of the way in which it seemed the Vatican had treated mandatory child protection procedures as "study guidelines". Pope Benedict made a written public apology to Irish abuse victims, acknowledging in 2010 that "serious mistakes" had been made by the Vatican and that he was "truly sorry". Whether this is enough remains to be seen; the ever increasing cases of sexual abuse of children by priests needs perhaps more the more rigorist approach he brought to any priests who stepped too far out of line in doctrine. That is something for his successor to address.
A few personal opinions of my own, which may be shared by some Catholics, but probably not others. There is more diversity in Catholicism than may appear the case to the outsiders. For anyone who thinks otherwise, I would recommend "The Tablet" weekly news magazine to read.
1. His legacy with regard to the revised liturgy is a mixed blessing. I think that the strange English in which some of it is phrased is a legacy of outmoded forms of translation, a lack of understanding of how a language is to be spoken rather than just read on the page. No doubt it will become familiar, but it will always look artificial, more like a Latin prep than the work of scholars. Ironically, in some respects, some parts of the translation has become closer to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, with the response "And with your spirit" to the phrase "the Lord be with you", and the creed in a form "I believe" rather than "We believe", and "shed for you and for many" rather than "shed for all" in the words of the Eucharist. But the Book of Common Prayers flows; the modern Missal creaks along like someone who hasn't English as their native tongue.
2. His mixed messages over married clergy, taking in disgruntled Anglicans has sounded an uncertain note; while he has stressed the importance of a celibate clergy, at the same time, he has welcomed the exception of Anglican married clergy who have become ordained again in the Catholic church, but remained married. This is an inconsistency which he leaves to a successor to resolve. The result of the decline of celibate clergy in many developed nations means that at the same time as the message has gone out about the centrality of the Eucharist in worship, more amalgamated parishes, often sharing one priest, have less opportunities to celebrate it.
3. His clamping down on any discussion of the ordination of women has been rigorous, and for the most part, ineffectual. Clergy have leant to keep quiet, but the issue remains on the table; it cannot be wished out of existence as a topic for discussion by Papal fiat. Of course, as Pope, he is perfectly justified in saying women's ordination could not happen in the Catholic church, but the silencing of any dissenting voices among the clergy is not the way to address the issue.
4. The attempt to build bridges to the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) without being aware of the history of holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson. The bridge building was a good idea; but the naivety over political fallout relating to Williamson showed that more care should have been taken.
5. The attempt to wrestle back and make a very conservative interpretation of Vatican II has been ill conceived. While there is some merit in highlighting some statements that may have been overlooked in the Council's published documents, his own conservative vision was as one sided as some of the more liberal ones he sought to dislodge.
6. There has been an increasing trend of centralising authority by ensuring that Bishops sign up to the same song sheet as the Pope. While it is to be expected that Bishops should adhere to the Catholic churches teaching, this - as with his predecessor - seems much more an attempt to make them tow the line on his own more rigid interpretations. This can also be seen in the fact that the bulk of the College of Cardinals who will elect the next pope was hand-picked by Benedict to guarantee his legacy. It is almost as if both Benedict and John Paul II are fearful of another reforming Pope like Pope John XXIII, and have taken steps to ensure nothing like Vatican II will happen again.
7. Despite numerous calls by priests in Ireland and Austria, there has been no attempt to address the situation of divorced Catholics when they have been innocent parties in any divorce; they are still treated as pariahs, and officially barred from receiving communion; parish practice, however, appears to often be more lenient, and this is something which Benedict's papacy has refused to acknowledge or regularlise.
8. On the positive side, he has been forceful and scored some palpable hits in his critique of Western relativism, and the problems arising from that pervading culture. His solutions, however, are perhaps not as strong as his critique, and bear some of the hallmarks of an absolutism that will not endear itself to the culture to which he seeks to reach out to. But we should still listen to the critique which holds up a mirror to the economic hedonism that lay at the heart of the banking crisis, and which still pervades many of the institutions responsible for the current recession. This was in his words, a result of a "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one's own ego and one's own desires".
9. His approach to other religions reflects the realism of our age. While Vatican II called for "respectful dialogue and collaboration with other religions", Benedict had noted that a weakness of the text was that "it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion." In an age which has seen suicide bombers justifying their actions on the grounds of religious belief, or who who shoot teenage Pakistani girls in the head for suggesting that women should be educated, that is perhaps a cautionary note to sound that we would do well to hear.
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