Is Pope Benedict’s resignation a catastrophe?

Credit: Marijan Murat

In a visit to the Rome-based Community of Saint’Egidio home for the elderly in 2012, Pope Benedict told residents that senior citizens “are an asset to society, even in suffering and disease.”

If only someone had whispered those same words in his ear before he stepped down as the 265th successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict might not have resigned.

Most commentators have spent the past several weeks praising Pope Benedict’s “humble” and “courageous” decision to be the first pope to willfully abdicate the papacy in over 600 years. Very few have voiced their disagreement with his decision. However, an essay published in La Croix, the semi-official daily newspaper of the French church, has been getting some attention for doing precisely that.

The column in question, titled “The pope’s abandonment is a catastrophe,” is written by Pierre Dulau & Martin Steffens, two philosophy professors.

“This resignation by the pope is a catastrophe,” Dulau and Steffens argue. “It is an event that is rarely found in history, a fact that, in its symbolic violence, is a portrait of our time.” The authors continued:

The Papacy is, in the West, the very last function of which it is commonly accepted by all that it engages the one who entered it “up until death.” This “till death” means at least two things. First, that human life is not its own goal: our life has no meaning if not linked to a greater life to which we may, in justice, sacrifice everything – exactly as the love of the spouses, “till death” as well, takes its meaning from beyond itself, in a promise that does not cease existing.

This “till death” recalls consequently that the pope, a “pontiff,” is the arch that links Earth to Heaven, that is, by the threshold of death, finite life to infinite life. A pope who resigns is a bridge that decides not to reach the other side where promise lies, [a destination] of which it is the assurance, and that leads there all those who left the point of departure.

To rupture this arch by way of a unilateral decision means to join hands with the global movement of non-commitment that strikes the entire Western symbolic order. Parenthood? Yes, but if we are in the mood for it, as long as we are in the mood for it. Marriage? Yes, if I can get divorced. To be in charge? Why not, if that does not deprive me of my right to happiness… There where a word is given that opens the door of life to something greater than itself, there also that word is broken, mocked, relegated as an old oddity. And even a pope should resign? A CEO or a president may resign. A pope is fired by death.

Although I don’t entirely agree with the assertion that Pope Benedict’s decision to step down is a catastrophe, count me among those who think Dulau and Steffens marshal a very strong argument as to why pope’s shouldn’t be resigning. And count me among those who don’t think it would be wise for Pope Benedict to retire and, as some Catholic leaders have assumed he will, start cranking out books on theology. After all, didn’t he cite a deterioration in mental strength as the reason why he resigned?

Some will surely point out that the intellectual rigor required to shepherd a flock of over 1 billion is different than writing a couple of books, and that having a pope who is mentally incapable of effectively managing the church can lead to disarray. That’s a fair point. But there’s a reason why fewer than a dozen popes have resigned from the papacy over the course of the Catholic Church’s 2,000 year history. It would be unwise to think this should be the new normal.



  • Stephen Kokx


    Just a quick reaction.

    I don’t know what you mean when you say because they are philosophers they are more susceptible to ignoring basic humanity. JP II was one of the greatest philosopher’s of the 20th century. Did that make him somehow less capable of relating to the world? Your argument makes little to no sense.

    Second, Yes, the Pope is human, and thus, capable of error. I question what you mean when you say he deserves ‘respite’. I cant imagine St Peter or St Paul agreeing with you. Abdicating the papacy is, as the authors mention, not like retiring as CEO. It is a different ‘position’ if you will and not something that should be viewed in the same lens as other professions.


      Hi Stephen ~
      My empathize was “professors” I do believe that some “ivory tower” academics w/o a lot of real life experience sometimes don’t “get it.” Benedict has been a philosopher but so much more as his bio attests. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these two have spent some time “toiling in the vineyards.
      Ss. Peter and Paul, of course never made it to 85. The Lord asked of them what they could give just as he did of Benedict. Of course being pope isn’t just being the RCC’s CEO. Other roles are primary but it’s just as stressful and draining as being a president or prime minister. Probably more.
      Maybe if I were 26 again and healthy as a horse I’d feel differently, but I think Dulau and Steffens may have a 4th Commandment problem here. Our priests, from the new ordinand to the pope have terribly difficult jobs. We laity who benefit from their labors need to take better care of them.
      Thanks for letting me rant. Greg

  • Quanah

    Wow! Dulau and Steffens come off pretty strong. I wonder if, like Dante, they too think Pope St. (I emphasize SAINT) Celestine V is in hell. Their comparisons for non-commitment are atrocious. Unlike marriage or parenthood there is nothing binding on a pope to be pope ’til death do us part. The recognition of this is in canon law and it certainly has precedence among other holy popes from the past, distant as that past may be. Finally, when announcing his resignation he fully acknowledged the “essential spiritual nature” of the Petrine ministry and that prayer and suffering are necessary to its being exercised. His Holiness, Benedict XVI, did not ignore this. He is recognizing how our time is significantly different from all other times before it and what this means for the exercise of the Petrine ministry. He had the courage to look clearly at reality. Perhaps the rest of us should do so as well, instead of holding to a time that no longer is and never will be again. One thing Church history makes abundantly clear is that the Petrine ministry has never been exercised in exactly the same way and at significant moments in its history has had to make adjustments.

  • Mack

    I think Benedict’s resignation was directly the will of God, otherwise the Pope would not have done it.
    The reasons may not be clear to us now, but we will see why as the next papacy unfolds. I believe we are in for another great pope.


    Hi Stephen~ Some thoughts on the Dulau & Steffens article.
    1) The pope is not God or an angel. He’s a human who, like the rest of us, deserves respite after a long lifetime of service.
    2) Would these two prefer that we find ourselves in a situation where a pontiff has a crisis and goes into a coma, leaving us without a pope for years.
    3)I guess when one is a philosophy professor, one can ignore basic humanity and reality. They should think about this terrible piece when and if they are 85 and in ill health.
    Sorry for the snarkiness but these guys really got me angry.
    Regards, Greg



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