Like any other good Catholic, Pope Benedict gave up something for Lent. The Vicar of Christ, head of the Roman Catholic Church, the boss of over a billion Catholics worldwide, shocked everyone this Spring by resigning the papacy.
A few hours after Benedict announced his resignation a lightning bolt struck the top of the Vatican. Then a meteor exploded in Russia. Then an asteroid barely missed hitting Earth. For some Catholics these are not coincidences. They are, rather, Heaven’s commentary on a resigning pope. Popes are supposed to stay popes until they die. Only two popes besides Benedict have resigned in 2,000 years. Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1417 to end the Great Schism, and Pope Celestine V voluntarily ended his five month pontificate to resume his former life as a hermit. Celestine was remembered by Cardinal Carl Ratzinger when he became Pope Benedict XVI: the new pope left his pallium (a papal stole) on Pope Celestine’s tomb. Over the years Benedict returned to Celestine’s tomb to pray – for what it is not known.
Like Pope Celestine, Benedict announced an intention to live out his last years in quiet prayer and contemplation. Unlike Celestine, Benedict cited health reasons that he felt rendered him unfit to fulfill the responsibilities of his office. In a consistory of Cardinals on February 11 2013 he unexpectedly announced:
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry…in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Pope Benedict’s exit from the public life of the Church was as surprising as his entrance over fifty years ago at the Second Vatican Council as Father Carl Ratzinger, a progressive theologian from Germany who attended Council sessions in a suit and tie – a daring departure from the cassock and Roman collar Churchmen of that time invariably wore.
Ratzinger’s public relationship with fellow German progressive theologian, Father Karl Rahner, also raised eyebrows. Rahner had a theory of “anonymous Christians,” which meant that the Christian faith had so penetrated the world that many people were unwitting Christians. Many thought this was a good thing since at the time it was believed that only Catholics went to heaven. Rahner and Ratzinger’s theological innovations were not welcomed by orthodox Catholics, who cried heresy.
Ratzinger supported Council innovations like Mass in the vernacular, a revision of the rite of Mass, and the general “loosening up” of Catholic dogma and worship. Looking back, much of the Council seems benign and in keeping with common sense. It is difficult for outsiders to understand what a shock the Council was to cradle Catholics who grew up with the “pray, pay, and obey” mentality. Suddenly they were being told the Church was not the exclusive means of salvation, that all the rules were no longer essential to salvation, and that they should welcome and even learn from heretics, infidels, and pagans (that is, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and other non-Catholics).
In the final days of Vatican II some Church Fathers seemed almost giddy. Many Council Fathers seemed to believe that if the Church suddenly started treating everyone like religious equals, members of all the other world’s religions would respond in kind, and everyone would sit cross legged around the altar singing Kumbaya. What really happened was quite different. Even Father Ratzinger was unprepared for the aftermath of Vatican II.
Protestants, Jews, and Muslims were not interested in becoming Catholic, or even talking to Catholics (except for liberal Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, who had already been talking to liberal Catholics anyway). Catholics seemed less interested in being Catholic too. Many voted with their feet and left the Church without looking back. After all, if the Church was not the exclusive ticket to heaven it said it was, then it was only a large inconvenience with hands reaching for wallets and purses. It was not just rank and file Catholics who left – priests and nuns left too. Father Ratzinger stayed. Once a progressive outsider, he was now an insider, and viewed as conservative in his theology.
Then came Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical upholding Church teaching that artificial contraception was a mortal sin – the kind of sin that sent you to hell if you did not confess it to a priest and receive absolution. There was a positive firestorm of criticism around the world. For the first time many priests joined in the criticism. Instead of ecumenical bliss, the Church seemed more hated than ever – and this time hated by its own members.
The pontificate of John Paul II (1978) restored some equilibrium. The great protagonist of Vatican II, John Paul traveled the world to preach the good news of Vatican II – as he understood it. John Paul elevated Ratzinger to Cardinal and put him in charge of the Church’s heresy hunting division (more formally known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF). The formerly theologically suspect Father Ratzinger was now in charge of enforcing orthodoxy around the world. And enforce things he did. Ratzinger was also the intellectual architect of John Paul’s papacy, and succeeded him as pope. He chose the name Benedict after Benedict XV, a pope known for his public prayers for peace prior to World War I.
Pope Benedict XVI prayed for peace too. He did not face a world war, but neither did he have peace. The halcyon days of Vatican II, with its dreams of ecumenical solidarity, never seemed more irrelevant. Benedict’s scholarly public remarks angered Jews and Muslims. His most trusted people betrayed him by leaking private documents. He tried to mend the schism with traditionalist Catholics and was humiliated when one of the traditionalist Bishops turned out to be a Holocaust denier.
The greatest heartbreak was the clergy sex abuse scandal. Benedict XVI bore the brunt of this tragedy. He sat with the victims and their families. He prosecuted (via Church law) and defrocked the wolves who preyed on the sheep they had vowed to defend. At long last the head of the Church showed accountability for the sins of his priests. It was too late, but at least it was something.
It is easy to find pathos in Benedict’s pontificate. Great expectations are seldom realized in life – even the expectations of an ecumenical Council. Some very well meaning men tried to conjure peace for the world and, not surprisingly, failed. Benedict XVI is the last pope of the Second Vatican Council. Misunderstood throughout his Church career, Pope Ratzinger soldiered on nevertheless. Perhaps in retirement he will find the elusive peace he has sought his whole life.