The entire world, especially Catholics, have been simultaneously shocked and dismayed by the recent announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he would step down, effective from 28 February 2013. You need to go as far back as 1292 to find the time a pope willingly resigned from office. It is supposed to be a job or calling that you take on and know you will continue with it until death.
It is true that the last time a Pope ‘resigned’ was in 1415. But that was under a different circumstance. Pope Gregory XII, whose papacy lasted from 1406 to 1415, reigned during one of the most confusing times in Catholic Church history, known as Western Schism. At that time, while Gregory was the overwhelming preference of the cardinals in Rome, there was also a French pope, Benedict XIII, who also staked a claim to the papacy. In 1409, a church council decided that the best thing to do was to depose both Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, and elect a brand new one, Alexander V. Since the popes refused to step down and all had powerful protectors, the church now had three popes simultaneously in charge. Finally, in 1415, Gregory ‘agreed’ to resign and spent the rest of his life in obscurity.
Pope Celestine V’s abdication in 1292 had a certain similar ring to it with Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign. Born to a poor family, he worked his way up in the religious ranks despite his love of living as a hermit in caves for years at a time. It was from his cave that he learnt about the death of Pope Nicholas IV in April 1292 and promptly sent a letter to the College of Cardinals urging them to elect a new pope as soon as possible or God would be angry. Coincidentally the College of Cardinals decided to elect him the pope. But he did not want the job and was eventually convinced to give it a try. In his five months in office, he made only three decrees, the last of which made it okay for popes to abdicate, which he immediately did. Though several popes had previously resigned under pressure including Pontian (235) and Benedict IX (1045), Pope Celestine is generally regarded as the first pope to have resigned voluntarily. While Pope Celestine V did not feel he was suited for the papacy, Pope Benedict said his age would not allow him to give his best. In both resignations, there is a sense that they took the decision because they wanted to put the Church above self, and above the attractions of fame and media spotlight. This will certainly be a good lesson for our politicians who continue to hang on to their office even when they are terminally ill and know they cannot go on.
Born on April 16, 1927, in the predominantly Catholic southern German region of Bavaria, Joseph Ratzinger, who was the son of a policeman, gradually gravitated towards the priesthood, entering a seminary in 1939, the same year he was required to join the Hitler Youth Movement. He was ordained priest at the same time as his older brother Georg in 1951. After receiving his doctorate in theology from the University of Munich in 1953, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger became a professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Bonn. The brilliant scholar, aged only 35, caught the eye of Cologne Archbishop Joseph Frings, a cardinal who brought him to Rome to work as an advisor to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which addressed the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. Pope Paul VI named Ratzinger archbishop of Munich in 1977 and made him a cardinal the same year. The four-year stint in Munich was Ratzinger’s only real pastoral experience before he became pope.
For his 85 years of age and given his schedule, Pope Benedict XVI does not look especially frail. In fact the Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican press office reportedly told reporters there was no specific health crisis or disease that forced the pope to take the decision to resign. So why throw in the towel when he is, by modern standards, not even particularly old, and still looking strong? The Pope’s sudden resignation and break with a 600-year-old tradition has expectedly flung the door wide open to various forms of speculation and conspiracy theories: some have alluded to the weight of the controversies surrounding child abuse cases which darkened his reign and in which the Vatican was accused of not doing enough to bring the implicated priests to justice. Others say he is pained by allegations that he did not personally do enough in his earlier role as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to prevent such abuses despite a general belief that he genuinely detested those crimes. Some have also alleged that Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy is not the best managed and that information in the Vatican leaked freely under him. A case in point was Paolo Gabriele, who has been the Pope’s trusted butler since 2006 and who was convicted for being one of the sources of ‘Vatileaks’ - leaked documents allegedly exposing corruption and power struggle in the Vatican. While all these may have played a role in the pope’s decision to step down, I am more persuaded by the argument that as a close associate of the more charismatic Pope John Paul 11, he knew that the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion flock – the largest organised religious body in the world – virtually grounded to a halt in the last five years of John Paul’s pontificate because everyone was put on a death watch for the increasingly frail Pope. It was said that Pope Benedict XVI, a very humble intellectual, did not want to put the Catholic Church through such a course again.
There are also indications that Pope Benedict XVI had always planned on resigning at a point. At 78 when he became pope, he reportedly said that he anticipated his papacy would be short. Was he alluding to a possible resignation? It was also reported that before becoming pope, he had attempted several times as he approached the mid-seventies to retire but that Pope John Paul II would not accept his resignation. He was then serving his predecessor as the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the doctrinal watchdog for the church once called the Inquisition.
It is part of the ironies of life that Pope Benedict XVI, a traditionalist and staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy, took the radical step of breaking a convention that has lasted for nearly 600 years. What this portends for the Catholic Church remains unclear. But the news of the resignation reminded me of the words in one of those ‘Team Up with Balarabe Musa’ posters I had in my room as an undergraduate in the early 1980s when the ‘feudal’-minded members of the Kaduna State House of Assembly were trying to impeach the ‘progressive’ Governor: “We are living in times of great changes. The old order is crumbling fast. Our business is to seek to understand these changes and to utilize them for human progress – Balarabe Musa”. My feeling is that the radical undertone of Pope Benedict’s resignation may unwittingly embolden the liberal forces within the Catholic faith, which could lead to the Church grappling with a renewed challenge of how to remain faithful to its key dogmas without being seen as being too out- of- touch with reality.
Besides his academic articles and official Church documents, Pope Benedict XVI authored several books including the Ratzinger Report (1996), The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000) and God and the World (2002). He is the oldest cardinal to be named pope since Clement XII, who was also 78 when he became pope in 1730. He is the first German pope since Victor II (1055-1057). He will be remembered as a staunch defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, a diehard traditionalist and for the few gaffes he committed during his papacy.
As the media remains abuzz with speculations on the ‘real’ reasons for the Pope’s resignation, commercially minded people and entities are moving in to profit from the situation. Bookmakers for instance are already offering odds on who will succeed the pope. The bookmaker Paddy Power has anointed Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada the favourite at 5/2, followed by Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria at 3/1 and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana at 4/1.