My first thought on hearing of Pope Benedict’s decision to resign his office was one of gratitude for the service he has given the Church, both as pope for the last eight years and as a priest and bishop for the last several decades. I have always believed him when he has said in interviews that if he could have consulted only his own preferences he would have wanted to live the life of a scholar and teacher. But of course, as he has reminded us in those same interviews, accepting the call to the priesthood means that you don’t get to consult your own preferences that much. The call to “administration” came and he had to take it, becoming a bishop, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a post from which he sought to retire, only to have John Paul II tell him, in effect, “you are too valuable to me”), and finally pope. He did all this, and did it with intelligence, humility, and charity — a legacy for which we can be grateful indeed.
My second thought was of those of us — especially faithful Catholics who have rightly viewed Benedict as a champion of orthodoxy — who might be disappointed or even feel let down by his decision to step aside. That is an understandable reaction, but I think many considerations counsel that we not second-guess the pope’s decision. Canon law provides for the resignation of the pope, and it would not do so if this were not a perfectly responsible and reasonable action, in the correct circumstances. And the canon law surely is wise here. Bishops are expected to retire at 75, and the papacy is at least as demanding as being a bishop.
We think of the pope as a father, and we might be tempted to think that Benedict is now leaving us fatherless. But of course from his own perspective he would equally be leaving us fatherless by remaining in office, where his declining health would leave more and more of his responsibility to be exercised by his subordinates, while he might not be in a condition to supervise them properly. And, in any case, the pope knows he is not leaving us fatherless, because God our Heavenly Father will provide us with another pope to be a spiritual father to us here an earth.
We cannot but be struck by the different choices of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The former chose to serve until the moment of his death, despite his deteriorating health. The latter has chosen to resign. I don’t think, however, that we have or can have the information necessary to say that Benedict is somehow declining a cross that John Paul II chose to carry. For all we know, John Paul II felt that despite his physical frailty he was able to execute his great office fittingly. Benedict does not think this is true in his own case, and really he is the only person who can judge the truth of the matter.
Many people today seem to think that we should retire when we are still vigorous and spend our “golden years” in pursuits of leisure. Some even seem to think that there is a right to do this, and even that the right includes a further right to partial public support in this extended retirement/vacation. It goes without saying that this view has nothing to do with the spirit of Christianity. Christians understand that they are to serve God and their fellows, working and suffering for them, up to their last breath. This does not mean, however, that the Christian is compelled to serve in any particular position, especially in a very demanding office that would tax even the powers of a much younger man, and especially when he thinks he cannot execute the office adequately. Benedict is not choosing not to serve, but to serve in a capacity that is still within his powers. A life of prayer and recollection is certainly a service to the Church, and this is evidently what Benedict thinks he can best do with the rest of his life.
The pope has made his decision, which was only his to make. Let’s pray for him, for the cardinals, for the next pope, for the Church and the world.