Saturday, February 16, 2013

Papal Resignations IV

Well, we have seen some previous resignations, so now let’s look at this papal resignation.  It was a shocker when I turned on the news last Monday morning at 5:30 AM to be greeted with an announcement that the pope was resigning.  As a historian I never expected to see this.  I remember the 1978 election in which Karol Wojtyla was elected as John Paul II—the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years and what a bombshell that was, but it was small news compared to a papal resignation. 
One of the most obvious things to Vatican watchers is that this resignation caught not only me but the papal household by surprise.  While a few close aides undoubtedly had some heads-up on it—someone had to check the text for Benedict’s Latin; he’s good but even a good Latinist knows to get his work checked out before he does an official document—it was clear from his confusion that Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s Press Secretary wasn’t in on the secret.  The poor man didn’t know whether to **** or go blind talking to the press Monday, obviously unprepared for such an announcement.  And Jesuits hate to be unprepared.  They rarely are.  And then all this confusion about a conclave and when it can begin and how it gets convoked with Cardinals tripping over one another to make the necessary plans.  Indeed the timing was not thought out and the announcement would appear to be somewhat spontaneous as the timing projects a conclave on the eve of Holy Week, a time that most of the Cardinals have responsibilities in their home dioceses.  Had Benedict consulted anyone he would have been advised to have done this either a month earlier or made it effective for after Easter.  No, while Benedict may have given the matter thought for some time, the actual decision was clearly somewhat spur-of-the moment and without consultation of his top officials.    
So what is the story?  My hunch is that Benedict was well aware of the fact that the papal power has drifted into the hands of Curial officials and that he had become unable to reassert papal control over his own bureaucracy.  The only possibility for the pope to be allowed to be pope is for a younger and more energetic man to come in and shake up the curial apparatus.  If you remember some earlier postings I have brought up rumors that Cardinal Bertone, the papal Secretary of State, had managed to consolidate the day to day running of the Church into his office, leaving Benedict to be the face but not the guts of the papacy.  Moreover, while Bertone was put in place to clean up the corruption of his predecessor, Cardinal Sodano, it seems that his ambition for power has, displayed Lord’s Acton’s famous principle that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  (See entries for June 7, 2011, February 15, 16, June 4, June 10 2012)
Josef Ratzinger, like all of us, has his shortcomings.  He probably has fewer of them than most of us.  He certainly has fewer failings than I.  But one thing Benedict has and has in plenty is integrity.  I suspect that it is this integrity that led him to personal decision to move aside and let someone come in and try to regain control of the Church’s central apparatus.  If he found himself unable to lead the Church into the paths he believes the Church must follow, Benedict would see the need to resign rather than to maintain the charade that he was pope while decisions were being made in his name but with which he could not agree.  More in the next posting

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