Wednesday, 13 February 2013

To renounce the Papacy

On Monday morning 11 February, the anniversary of the Signing of the Lateran Treaty, I was awaken to the news that the Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI had renounced his title and functions as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. It did not take long for the press in Canada and elsewhere to get all excited, if not hysterical over this piece of news. What is also of concern is the lack of correct information and factual information or perspective on this news.
So many terms have been used and so much information was just simply wrong. If you do not have factual and correct information how can you reflect or understand anything. We live in an age of flash information and we have never been so misinformed, it is very discouraging at the best of time.

Few of us can claim to know Benedict XVI or who he is as a person. His reputation has been established for better or worse by the media and their confused interpretation of events at the Holy See. Comparing the current Pope with his predecessor Jean-Paul II is also not helpful, two very different men coming from two very different background and countries with different experiences.
Jean-Paul II was a Pole who grew up during World War II in a country marked for annihilation by Nazi policies and then worked during decades of harsh Communist rule stage managed from Moscow. Jean-Paul II was a clever and hard nose politician who knew what he wanted to achieve. I remember being told by Vatican Official once that he was very impatient and wanted everything done quickly, he was not the typical Vatican insider. His last months of his life were difficult, kept alive with a medical cocktail prepared daily by his doctors, often in great pain and confused, everything was stage managed by his Polish entourage so the public could believe that his mind was alert. Benedict then Cardinal Ratzinger saw all this and as a close colleague found it painful, but the Polish entourage was in charge and they wanted to remain in power.  

This is what we have to remember of the Holy See, from the very beginning when Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth Century and created the position of Bishop of Rome at the Lateran, the political manoeuvring started and continues to this day. It is a very complicated story and it has more to do with politics and power than Faith in One God.

Benedict is very well educated, a scholar in Latin and on other topics. He is also a very pragmatic person and in his own words for the good of the Church has decided to renounce his function as Supreme Pontiff. It is rare to see someone, anyone, renounce such a powerful office. Usually people in power become convince that they are indispensable and refuse to leave, even when it has been demonstrated it would be better for them to leave office.

What has also not been mentioned here is the fact that when a Pope dies or in this case renounces his title, all other Cardinals must also abandon their portfolio. Benedict had a weak number two, Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone not up to the responsibilities given to him in the management of this huge machine which is the Holy See and the World wide Church. There was failure in management and communication and Benedict was reluctant to replace people like Bertone who clearly were not up to the challenges. To many scandals including the one created over his butler who was found guilty of stealing private documents, may in the end bring the Pope to conclude that it was better to leave so that a new Pontiff could truly clean up house. A courageous gesture and one of wisdom and clarity which may help the Church in the long run.

The Pope weathered many storms, like the sex scandal which had been brewing for years under Jean-Paul II but never came to the surface, the world was busy with other events like the end of the Cold War and the long illness of the Pope and the team around Jean-Paul was far more politically minded and astute in Public Relations. Benedict inherited the mess and did all he could to bring closure. We can credit him with implementing measures to put an end to these abuses. Maybe he could have done more, maybe he could have been more political or more with an eye to the popular press to satisfy the public at large, but that was not his style. Benedict remains a man of his generation, more conservative, more European in out look, not comfortable with the rock star style of his predecessor. I also believe that with time Jean-Paul II papacy will be re-evaluated by history as the truth will finally come out on what he failed to do for the good of the Church.

It is true that the Church today appears out of step with our modern reality, but then again the Church has always been out of step, example the Galileo affair, the Reformation movement or the movement for the Unity of the Italian Republic or the eternally festering dispute with the Orthodox Church on who comes first in Christendom, the Bishop of Rome or the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Today the issues are different but it remains that the Church does not change to suit popular taste which are seen as a passing fad.

If you think that things are bad in the Roman Church, look at the Anglicans or the Lutherans or the Orthodox, similar political disputes and disagreements. Muslims are not any better with fights between the Shia, Sunni, Druze and Alawites. Or in Israël between the Orthodox Jews and the more Liberal Jews.

In the last few days the popular press including some so called serious newspapers have talked of the Pope quitting his job, resigning, he has done neither. He renounced his functions which are governed by Cannon Law article 332. No there is no signing of papers or retirement parties, no pension for life.
Like any Sovereign he cannot quit or resign, he does not have a job and he is chosen not elected by the masses. The Holy See is not a democracy but a Theocracy, something many people do not understand.

The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano pointed out that in 2009, Benedict had visited the earthquake devastated area of L'Aquila and had made a point of visiting the tomb of Pope Celestine V who had renounced the papacy in 1294 of his free will. Benedict had said then that he would do the same if he felt unable to continue, he had left his Pallium at the tomb of Celestine V. The Pallium is the white woollen band with pendants worn by the Pope as a symbol of his authority.

the small building on the right of the photo will be Pope Benedict's home in the Vatican garden.

Now the Cardinals will assemble in the Sistine Chapel, sorry tourists it is closed for the duration, and will discuss and vote on a successor. Benedict will retire first to Castel Gandolfo just a few minutes outside Rome, the summer residence of Popes and then after the election will move to a house in the immense gardens of the Vatican Hill near the old radio Vatican tower to live out his days. It is not a palace and a rather plain two story building with a small chapel and a garden surrounded by a high greenery wall.

And for those who commented that maybe there should be fix terms in office and all kinds of civilian job related modernity a la US political system, again the Holy See is not that kind of organization. The Pope reports to God and not to us, maybe it is better this way, humans tend to be a fickle bunch. I also do not believe the doom sayers who say the Roman Catholic Church is going to disappear. On the contrary it is thriving and growing rapidly in all parts of the world with the exception of Europe and North America. So our thinking is skewed by our North American biased view of the world.

fresco God the Father in the Royal Spanish Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome




  1. This too was a thoughtful post. I agree with the sad conclusion instant news and internet is doing a better job as spreading nonsense than truth. My first thoughts upon hearing the Pope resigning was thoughts of 'sensible man' - he's 85yo and failing health. We don't need another languishing JPII. Popes are like milk, my father would say, you don't want one for too long or they go sour.
    The same folks sneering about 'giving up' were also the ones upset he was there in the first place.
    Jesus said despite everything all the gates of hell won't smash it down, which is a great comfort.
    My one biggest concern here; now that the Mayan nonsense is past 'we' need a new end of the world prophecy. Mr. "Last pope" will no doubt be raised up quickly. Oh bother.

    1. Well if Cardinal Ouellet of Quebec City is elected Pope being a Canadian no nonsense kind of guy I am sure he will avoid the end of the World.

  2. this makes me rethink my entire way of thinking on the abdication of the Pope..thanks for a wonderful read.

  3. I wonder if you know the sitcom Father Ted, to my mind one of the funniest since Fawlty Towers. There have been some hilarious pictures going round of the two most unsuitable candidates from it for the next Pope...

    No love here for Benedict, but I thought his decision to retire was rather gracefully done.