Last week, we looked here at the complete novelty of Pope Benedict’s abdication, clarifying that such a thing has never been done in the entire history of the Church.
The proper Catholic intuition about an utter novelty is that doing so may well be a grave mistake. Not certainly a grave mistake, but plausibly so, given that tradition exists in part to protect us from dangerous novelties.
In last week’s column, we looked at why the Holy Father may have made the choice he did, in line with developments after Vatican II regarding the retirement of bishops. In that light, Benedict’s choice is both considered and measured.
It is also necessary though to consider the adverse consequences of the abdication. To do so is not to lack any loyalty to the Holy Father, who in other contexts has invited disagreement with his analysis as the fruit of engagement borne of goodwill. To look at the other side is also not to question Benedict’s holiness, which is quite manifest. St. Pius V was a holy man whose excommunication of Elizabeth I is widely considered a mistake. St. Robert Bellarmine presided over the first Galileo trial. Even saints can disagree with each other, as began with Peter and Paul in the early Church.
More to the point, just last December, Pope Benedict declared that Pope Paul VI lived a life of heroic holiness and declared him “Venerable,” meaning worthy of being declared a saint. That Pope Paul was holy does not mean all his decisions were good ones. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself said so, quite dramatically, while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy,” wrote Ratzinger in 1997 about Paul VI’s reform. “The old building was demolished, and another built, to be sure largely using materials from the previous one and even using the old building plans. There is no doubt that this new missal in many respects brought with it a real improvement and enrichment; but setting it as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm.”
Ratzinger did not dispute that Venerable Paul VI had the canonical right to do as he did, just that it was a calamitous mistake, in part because “nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy.”
Benedict’s resignation is precisely that — nothing of the sort has ever happened in history. So we need to be cautious. It may be, as I suggested last week, that it constitutes a gradual extension of an accepted practice that may indeed serve the Church well. It is a near-universal judgment that the mandatory retirement age for bishops has served the Church well, especially as it is now routine for men to live into their 80s and 90s.
It is also possible that 25 years hence — as Ratzinger wrote about Paul VI’s reforms — the abdication will be judged to have been an enormous mistake. It is too early to make a judgment either way, but even now it is possible to foresee how this will change the papacy.
While it gives a future pope the practical liberty to resign as Benedict has done, it also will make it much more difficult for him to remain in office. I have little doubt that if Venerable Paul VI had resigned in the 1970s, Blessed John Paul II would have found it impossible to remain until his death — the pressure for resignation would have been immense. The Church would have been deprived of his great witness and the grace of his death.
It was for that reason — the implication that frail popes should resign — that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow reiterated on the day of Benedict’s abdication address that John Paul stayed until the end because “Christ did not come down off the cross.” When that was judged rather impolitic, the next day the Holy See Press Office issued a statement from Dziwisz, full of praise for Benedict and his decision. That small hiccup is a sign of disagreements to come over papal health and resignation.
Or consider the international assault on Pope Benedict launched in 2010 over sexual abuse cases. I know something of that media battle, being involved in a minor way. Had the possibility of a papal resignation been in the air, it would have been a much longer and nastier fight.
A freely chosen papal abdication, unprecedented as it is, changes the papal office forever; whether for better or worse remains to be seen.