Monday, February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI's Resignation & the Danger of Labels

I woke up this morning to the news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.  For those familiar with comments Benedict made in Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs Of The Times, a book-length interview with the holy father, this doesn't come as a surprise.  "If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office," Benedict said, "then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."

I've had opportunity to read a few reports in the newspapers about the pope's resignation, and predictably enough, attempts are being made to tell the story out of a 'conservative vs. liberal' framework; i.e., how will liberal/conservative Catholics react to the resignation of a 'conservative' pope?

I'm not a Vatican insider.  I don't know Pope Benedict personally, nor do I have any dealings with the Roman curia.  But I have read much of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI's works, and it seems to me that Pope Benedict is far too complex a thinker to be classified so easily as a 'conservative'.  Yes, there are issues on which he is immovable (or appears to be), and some people simply dismiss him as a thinker and as a leader because of these issues.  But to do so, I think, would be to miss out on a man of profound insight and depth, whose theology is worth exploring.  Similarly, 'conservatives' who think Benedict is entirely of their ilk need to delve more carefully into his thought.

To take but one issue as an example of Benedict's complexity of thought, James Alison, an openly gay Roman Catholic priest, is a somewhat controversial figure who has called on the church to articulate its understanding of homosexuality differently.  But interestingly enough, he is also a huge fan of Pope Benedict XVI.  And in an interview with Commonweal published on his website, Alison makes a compelling argument that Pope Benedict XVI has done more than any previous pope to bring about broader acceptance of same-sex relationships within a global church in which change does not,  for good reasons, occur quickly (see part II, questions 10-11 of the interview).

However, Benedict's subtlety and complexity on this and on a whole host of issues and topics, doesn't make for good copy, nor does it make for easy exploration.  Those who tend simply to label don't usually want to have to explore someone's thought so diligently.

But my (admittedly limited) experience has been that most people, and particularly those in positions of authority, deserve more courtesy than simply to be labelled, whether positively or negatively.  Most people are far more complex than such labels admit, and while labels may help one digest and make sense of our world, labels often do little more than degrade.

Pope Benedict's decision was courageous and humble.  I pray for him as he seeks, in his words, to "devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer." I pray as well for the cardinals tasked with the job of choosing a leader for our church.

P.S. For those wondering about the canon law surrounding papal resignation (given that this is the first time a pope in modern history has resigned) the folks at America - and specifically Dan Horan, O.F.M. - very helpfully wrote this:
For those who are interested, perhaps the best-known example of a pope resigning was in 1294 when Pope Celestine V (d. 1296) resigned from his office. Benedict XVI is the first in several centuries. According to the Code of Canon Law (CIC) this right of the Roman Pontiff falls under Canon 332, no. 2, which reads: "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone." This helps to explain the timing of the Pope's decision, which is an act that can only take place when he is still of sound mind and body.
As for the delivery of this news to the cardinals in attendance this morning, some canon law scholars believe this is essential in assuring the legitimacy of the resignation. According to canonist Knut Walf, "The resignation from office of the pope must be sufficiently manifested and requires no acceptance 'by anyone.' The recipient of the 'manifestation' is not specified. Some commentators are of the opinion that the college of cardinals or its dean as the competent electoral body must be informed of the resignation" (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law , eds. J. Beal, J. Coriden, and T. Green [2000] p. 438). Needless to say, this is a very important announcement of great historical significance.
P.S.S. Some have asked me what the pope is going to do after he resigns.  According to National Catholic Reporter, the Vatican has provided the following answers regarding his resignation and life post-resignation.  Joshua J. McElwee from NCR writes:
Following his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI will move to a monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican, the Vatican spokesperson has stated.
Four clarifications about the pope's resignation were sent this morning by Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson:

Pope Benedict XVI has given his resignation freely, in accordance with Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law.
Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.
Pope Benedict XVI will move to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo when his resignation shall become effective.
When renovation work on the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican is complete, the Holy Father will move there for a period of prayer and reflection.


  1. I'm Catholic too but there are a few undeniable things. Benedict hid or at least didn't do enough about child abusing elements in the Church. He also silenced Liberation Theology when he was secretary of the Congregation of Faith and Doctrine, and in a time when AIDS affects millions, he still opposed the spread of condoms and contraception, and told people to not use it, endangering their lives in that way and worsening the epidemy. That's why I don't see Ratzinger's papacy in good eyes. He did teach and do some good things, but that's not really enough. It's time for the Church to modernize even more. Accept women into the clergy, allow contraception for married couples, allow abortion in some cases like ectopic pregnancies. But the most important thing the Church should do is share her money to the poor. The Vatican is seen as a seething place of corruption, the Pope is seen as a lavish millionaire and the Church as a hypocritical institution for doing things contrary to what she teaches. It should be time for the Church to deprivatize her universities, schools and hospitals. At least for the universities, they are for the elite class, not for the poor. The Church spends millions on churches, why not spend millions in trying to save people from poverty? What's the point in having votes of poverty, teaching materialism is wrong and following a man that lived amongst those who didn't have anything if the Church is not doing any of these?

  2. Thank you for your comments Alejandro. My goal in the post was not to be an apologist for Pope Benedict's entire papacy, but simply to advocate for an approach to him (and to others) that transcends caricature. Good arguments can and should be made regarding certain issues surrounding his ideas, but for that to occur, one must be very familiar with his thought. Yes, he did oppose liberation theology. But it is important to examine why he did so, and what were his arguments. Any confrontation with his thought on the issue needs to take seriously the arguments he puts forward. I'm not saying I agree with his understanding of liberation theology. But I am saying that he has substantial arguments regarding this issue, and it is important that any who oppose him on this issue need to be familiar with the depth of his thinking on it. The same goes for the other issues you bring up.

    In terms of your reference the church modernizing, I have to admit that I always feel uncomfortable with such language. While I agree that the church and the world need always to be in conversation that is mutually beneficial, I do think that the church needs to work out the kind of issues you raise on its own terms, prayerfully and carefully. Again, I'm not saying I disagree with your stance on those issues.

    Many thanks again for your very insightful comments and for your willingness to share your ideas. Much appreciated!