Pope Benedict XVI has reshaped the papacy simply by giving it up. But how?
As the first pontiff in six centuries to step down, Benedict has carved a new path for his successors who decide they cannot rule for life. But scholars say the repercussions could reach beyond just changing how pontiffs leave to ultimately shape perceptions about the authority and significance of the pontificate.
“A lot of what it will mean has to do with what subsequent popes do. Does this become a precedent for future popes to follow or not?” said Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.
Benedict’s pontificate will end at 8 p.m. Thursday. He plans no role in the conclave that will choose the next pontiff, and will retreat to a life of prayer in a monastery behind Vatican walls. His decision shocked the church. But papal resignations are expected to become more likely over time because of extended lifespans and the growing demands of the pontificate, Thompson said.
Travel is now a major responsibility due largely to the globe-trotting example of Pope John Paul II. Shepherding the 1.1 billion faithful requires constant contact through the Internet. These days, Catholics far from the Holy See can watch the weekly general audience, ask the pope questions on Twitter and pray in real time along with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. As a result, staying on until death can mean a very public decline. John Paul, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other health troubles, could no longer walk or talk when he died in 2005 at age 84.
The pope is regarded as a teacher, an international diplomat and an administrator, but he is also the vicar of Christ — a leader with a divine mission. Benedict’s retirement raised fears that the pontificate could be viewed as less holy. Some questions have even focused on the much misunderstood Catholic teaching on papal infallibility: With two popes, one emeritus and one in power, who will have the final say? In fact, infallibility applies to the office, not the person, and only when a pope invokes apostolic authority to define doctrine or morals for the entire church.
Yet, many Catholic scholars say the act has in some ways demystified the papacy, especially given the intense focus in the final days of Benedict’s pontificate to the 2012 scandal over leaked Vatican documents and what role the crisis had played in his decision to leave. Joseph Bottum, writing in the Weekly Standard, a conservative U.S. publication, called Benedict “a terrible executive of the Vatican.”
“There’s the relationship part — he’s your father — and your father is always your father. Then there’s the functional part — whether he’s up to the job,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis George in a phone interview. “The functional concerns, those have come to the fore now. We’ll see what, if any, impact that has as we go forward.”
Even with Benedict’s resignation, new popes are unlikely to emerge from a conclave thinking, “I’ll go in for 10 years or so then give it up,” said Francesco Cesareo, a specialist in church history and president of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. The significance of the office, its history and spiritual duties, will always make any decision to leave difficult.
At the Feb. 11 Vatican event when Benedict made his dramatic announcement, the 85-year-old leader said he had examined his conscience before God and decided his strength, due to old age, had “deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
A week after Benedict’s announcement, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan dismissed worries that pontiffs would now be newly vulnerable to pressure to step down.
“It’s not going to become something that every pope feels obliged to do,” Dolan said, discussing the abdication on his satellite radio show.