That could be healthy, church officials say, because it would refocus the faithful not on a man but on an office in the service of God. Many in the church are deeply uncomfortable with the notion that popes are nearly divine, noting that their powers of infallibility are limited to specific issues of religious doctrine and are very rarely exercised.
“The pope stepping down has taken some of the magical thinking away,” said one senior Vatican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The day before he stepped down it was still unfathomable, but three hours after, people were already talking about it as reasonable and sensible. If his goal was to bring reasonable, sensible thinking into the institution, he did.”
Yet the same official conceded a measure of concern in Vatican City about the long-term impact of a papal resignation on the office. Some wonder whether future popes might see the office as a temporary job and eventually enter a sort of lame-duck period after a few good years.
“People are worried that part of the smoke-and-mirrors effect is lost,” the official said. “It creates serious theological problems and reduces the magic. If it becomes normal, do you have the danger of a sort of second-term presidency?”
Benedict’s decision to remain in Vatican City with the title pope emeritus could further undermine the office. The church has long taught of a singular authority in the Vatican. Now it will need to sell the notion of two popes — one reigning and one retired, both wearing papal whites — in Sunday schools and services.
“Americans tend to want to pray directly to God, but in some places, like Latin America, like Italy, you have a kind of padrone culture where someone intercedes for you because you’re almost afraid to go to the top directly — in this case, God,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst in Rome for the National Catholic Reporter. “So they pray to the pope because the Holy Father is seen as having an inside channel to God.”
Benedict’s decision to stick around is “a terrible mistake,” Reese said. “I think this is just going to be too confusing for some people.”
Others say the papacy may simply be returning — as it has in various points in the millennial history of the church — to a time when power was less concentrated in the hands of one man. Before the year 1,000, most Catholics were hard pressed to even name the sitting pope. One side effect of a more down to earth papacy could be greater decentralization, with bishops enjoying more power to conduct church business in their countries as they see fit.
Benedict, some say, had already been moving to demystify the office before his shocking retirement announcement. Upon winning the papacy, instead of being crowned, he opted for a conferral of the pallium, a humbler vestment made of wool that is a reference to Christ the good shepherd, who carried sheep on his shoulders. Benedict also wasn’t a big fan of the rock-star-like stadium masses that came to define the papacy of his predecessor, John Paul II.
“And maybe that’s a good thing,” said Richard R. Gaillardetz, the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. “This idea of mystification of popes is a pretty modern phenomenon, going back only about 130 to 150 years. It’s okay when it’s symbolic, but it becomes unhealthy when we attribute to the pope far more authority and reverence than is really warranted by our tradition.”
Jason Horowitz contributed to this report.