The church and the world are still absorbing the shock of the announcement that on February 28th Pope Benedict XVI will become the first in modern history to resign from the papacy (the last two were Gregory XII in 1415 and St. Celestine V in 1294). In the wake of this bold decision, one fact shines through: only he could do this.
First, literally: The Code of Canon Law says the only prerequisite for papal resignation is that it be given freely (332). Pope Benedict made clear in his announcement that this was an act of free will preceded by much prayer and reflection on the matter.
The pope also said things that only he could say: The world is changing rapidly. People are asking many questions with deep relevance for the faith. The pope must be up to the challenge. No one could ever tell the pope this or force him to listen. But the pope could decide it for himself. And in doing so he sends a powerful message about the demands and the essential role of the papacy in today’s world.
Then there’s the little detail that the history books are full of people who never willingly gave up their power. In resigning the papacy, Pope Benedict puts himself in very rare company. He’s someone concerned with more than earthly power. Very few people can do that.
A papal resignation also raises the ugly point that the Catholic Church has a painful history when it comes to having more than one living person with a claim on the papacy. Setting a modern precedent requires someone who is willing to remove himself completely from the picture for the good of the church’s unity. Pope Benedict has already indicated his intention to do this.
Then there’s the issue that the church simply hasn’t experienced this in modern times. It raises questions: Will the retiring pope participate in the conclave to elect his successor? (He will not.) What will his title be? (His Holiness Benedict XVI, pope-emeritus) Where will he live? (in a cloister within in the Vatican, leading a life dedicated to prayer) Will his Fisherman’s Ring, a symbol of his authority, be destroyed, as is the case with deceased popes? (yes) These are complicated questions of theology and canon law. It requires an authoritative voice, a great mind, someone whose reputation is impeccable.
It quickly becomes clear that if any one person can etch this precedent into the church’s tradition, it’s Pope Benedict. This is a man who helped shape the future trajectory of the church at Vatican II, who safeguarded the church’s teachings at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and who’s led the universal church as pope. For decades, Joseph Ratzinger has clarified for the world what’s Catholic and what isn’t. Now he’s showing us that this is Catholic too.
Clemmer is assistant director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.