Resignation of a teacher-Pope


Pope Benedict resignation announcementPope Benedict's resignation may be the most significant act of his papacy. It draws attention away from the mystique of popes and bishops, and focuses it firmly on their call to serve the Church.

His resignation allows us to reflect on his time as Pope. When the Cardinals elected Joseph Ratzinger many Catholics were surprised, and some alarmed at the choice. They identified him with the stern disciplinary actions and doctrinal intransigence of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith. They assumed he would bring the same narrow focus to his leadership of the Catholic Church.

The reality has been rather different. Certainly, in his approach to the liturgy and in his different attitudes to reactionary and liberal groups on the margins of the Catholic Church, the continuity between the Cardinal and the Pope has been noticeable. But most notable has been the continuing depth and breadth of his reflection.

He has been above all a teacher who can draw richly on Catholic spiritual and theological tradition to illuminate the large social and cultural issues of our day. Over the last decade the Christian world has been blessed by having such reflective and knowledgeable leaders as Pope Benedict and Rowan Williams. For Catholics his resignation will be an opportunity to say thank you to a man who has served the Church faithfully as Pope.

He was a scholar, and to adjust to the constraints and expectations of a public person clearly was not easy for him. His scholarly musings got him into trouble from time to time, but he learned from his mistakes, and finally seemed to derive wry enjoyment from his public engagements, particularly with young people, who responded to his humanity. In his retirement he will surely be looked on with affection and good will.

It is too soon to sum up his achievements and the challenges he leaves to the Church and so to his successor. He grasped the extent and the evil of clerical sexual abuse; dealing with it, and with the aspects of clerical culture that have contributed to it, will occupy the Catholic Church and his successors for the next generation.

Benedict was an acute observer of contemporary culture, particularly of how the focus on technological solutions to problems has pushed aside human values. But his critical analysis in terms of secularism has sometimes encouraged the image of a church in mortal conflict with modern society. Christian engagement with modernity is a continuing and complex story, and we may expect Benedict's successor to bring fresh insights to it.

For the Catholic Church, perhaps Benedict's best gift will turn out to be his resignation. I confess that I had given up on my initial hope after his election as an elderly man that he would resign from his position rather than die in office. He seemed to have the historical grasp and theological breadth required to make this precedent-setting decision, but time was passing.

Given the importance of the papacy in the Catholic Church, the expectation that popes would continue to hold office until death was quite destructive. The increase in life expectancy meant that the cardinals would tend to elect only elderly men because this would be the only way to guarantee change within a reasonable time.

The expectation also meant that during a pope's long decline the principles of good church governance would yield to spiritual snake oil. So John Paul II's suffering during his last years was justified as the heroic acceptance of weakness and a demonstration of the value of the frail and elderly in a society that depreciated them.

The Pope's personal courage and endurance were admirable, and the value of the elderly undeniable. But Popes exist for the good of the Church, and it is difficult to see how the Church's interests are best served by men unable to give full attention to their duties.

So Pope Benedict's resignation is good because it will now allow a circuit breaker for an ageing pope. It will also takes the focus away from the mystique of the Pope to his responsibilities to the church, and will lead to a consideration of what length of tenure by other office holders in the church best serves the church. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. He is also a policy officer for Jesuit Social Services. 


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Benedict, pope resignation



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Thanks Andy for what is, given the heat and shock of the moment, a most charitable and generous tribute to the Bavarian Pope. Leadership is certainly the issue, but given that we are talking about the Pope, so is the politics. The Tablet online has called the resignation a “highly unusual move”. This reading goes to the top of the list of comic understatements of 2013, or any other year since 1415. The Pope’s resignation is a unique experience for everyone alive on the planet at this moment. That the Pope dies in office is a piece of Catholic custom treated by most Catholics as virtual dogma. In the popular mind it is not separate from the belief that the Pope is infallible on matters of faith. Benedict, a conservative Catholic, has done what conservative Catholics (until this month) would have deemed impossible and in fact unthinkable, he has resigned as the Bishop of Rome while in office. The rhetorical cartwheels and repositioning of lifelong attitudes is going to be amazing in coming weeks, now that we all adjust to this “highly unusual move”. But as you intimate here, maybe just maybe the resignation is the first sign of real change inside the Catholic Church and even, is it possible, inside Rome itself. Perhaps it is his gift to the Church.

PHILIP HARVEY | 12 February 2013  

Habemus Papam? Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio SJ, has got my vote.

Game Theory | 12 February 2013  

Thanks once again Andy for a clear analysis of and reflection on the significance of Pope Benedict's contribution to church and world. In the multiple knee-jerk news-bites that followed the resignation you have given us an alternative insightful lens through which to view the Pope's decision.

Maryanne Confoy RSC | 13 February 2013  

"He was a scholar, and to adjust to the constraints and expectations of a public person clearly was not easy for him." The same could be said about Rowan Williams, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree. Watching this story on the news last night, the biggest impression left with me was the amazement of 'ordinary' Catholics. Clearly, a most unexpected occurrence, one not even contemplated. Taking the focus away from the mystique of the Pope and putting the focus firmly on humanity may indeed be Benedict's gift.

Pam | 13 February 2013  

What next? Another Pope Joan maybe? Really, what a lot of fuss over a tired old man resigning. But where will he live? What will he be called? Will it be like the US system where even retired presidents are still called 'Mr President'? Will he revert to his old name and title, or just slip into civvie street with a Vatican bus pass and a walking frame? Clearly, he did not resolve the enormous issue of the entrenched sexual abuse practices, worldwide, that haunt the Catholic Church or he would have sacked more than a few cardinals and arch/bishops, to say nothing of turfing the priests out onto the pavement, and of course, when it comes to caring for the planet, the small matter of birth control still shows the Vatican to be a crime-against-humanity, encouraging the poorest of people to fill the world with ever more people. As for this line, "But Popes exist for the good of the Church, and it is difficult to see how the Church's interests are best served by men unable to give full attention to their duties", that is odd indeed. I thought the Pope existed to serve God, not some Earthly mega-corporation that could be easily run by a CEO on outrageous wages like all other corporations.

janice wallace | 13 February 2013  

"It is too soon to sum up his achievements and the challenges he leaves to the Church and so to his successor. He grasped the extent and the evil of clerical sexual abuse; dealing with it, and with the aspects of clerical culture that have contributed to it, will occupy the Catholic Church and his successors for the next generation." Andrew, I must have missed something. What do you mean by the Pope grasped the extent and the evil of 'clerical sexual abuse' (you mean child rape and molestation, I presume)? Your semi-colon is cute. The Pope has left it to others to deal with the evil. Was it too hard for him to take action while he had unlimited power to do so. The Pope is not dead: there is no need for a polite eulogy at this point. Without an honest appraisal, I doubt the Church can move on to the challenges the man left to his successor.

Frank Golding | 13 February 2013  

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini SJ, a man who many consider would have been elected Pope in 2005 if it were not for his degenerative illness, was less positive than Andy some weeks before his death on 29 August 2012.: "The church is tired . . . Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous." and: “The church must recognize its errors and follow a radical path of change, beginning with the pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals compel us to take up a path of conversion.” This was the considered judgement of a dying man, an eminent member of the hierarchy, leaving a deliberate message and legacy for the Church. The Church has grave defects in its governance, which are horribly illustrated in the institutional response to child abuse in its ranks. Pope Benedict has taken a courageous decision in resigning, opening the way for the conclave to courageously address the real challenges in electing his successor. Let's pray that they have the necessary insight, courage and guidance of the Holy Spirit!

Peter Johnstone | 13 February 2013  

Thank you Andrew Hamilton for the recognition of Benedict as a good pope who confounded all the predictions of the self-appointed experts and critics and proved an embarrassment for the media tarts who proclaim their Catholism while they dish out their sensational, promotional claptrap. We can expect that they will be courted by the media immediately and will be "experts" before the fact on the next pope,as a couple of well-known contempory commentators were in relation to Benedict.

john frawley | 13 February 2013  

"He has been above all a teacher who can draw richly on Catholic spiritual and theological tradition" ************************ "Traditions" are often assumed to be the material expressions of spiritual values. As such, they were established by men who were well-meaning, but ignorant of the evolutionary changes that are part of all life. The early congregations, as depicted in 'Acts', were almost exclusively Jews,motivated by universal love for all, especially the poor and needy. They inspired a movement known as "The Way". Many Gentiles were attracted by the love and generosity generated, and later took over the movement, and inserted into the "scriptures" many of the myths from their older 'pagan' religions. This alienated the Jews, but later became "The Tradition" that was accepted without question by many of the Romans, and by us. The Church structure in turn came to be regarded as "Tradition", and is often accorded priority over fidelity to the 2 Great Commandments that are the corner stone of devotion to God. By appointing only conservative Cardinals, Benedict has more or less guaranteed that this "Tradition" will continue.

Robert Liddy | 13 February 2013  

Thank you Andrew, Pope Benedict is by nature a surprise to us all, his election was a surprise, his refreshing attitude towards the World Youth Days, his excellent speeches in places abroad (Regensburg 2006; Westminster Hall London 2010) indicated a spiritual teacher of great worth. I particularly liked his document on love: Deus Caritas Est 2005 which showed an enormous appreciation of God’s love and action in our world. But what I admire most is his ability to ‘let go’ of the prime position, the timing may be serendipitous for those who are in need of great healing from the Church. Let’s hope that the next pope can learn too to ‘let go’ of the need to conform to traditional values that no longer belong in this society (mandated celibacy for priests; gender bias in the College of Cardinals; enforcing the myths surrounding women). I can see no reason why Benedict cannot continue to contribute as a great theological teacher when his health allows. Perhaps with no official demands being imposed upon his time his writings will become masterpieces for future generations.

Trish Martin | 13 February 2013  

Dr Hamilton is astute and correct in one respect: Benedict's resignation is probably the most creative act of his Papacy and -- especially because it flew so defiantly and decisively in the face of long and outdated tradition -- is highly likely to have consequences [perhaps, inter alia, on the kinds of choices which Conclaves might make from now on]. However, Dr Hamilton has not convinced me that the "enforcer" changed his outlook or ways on becoming Pope. I see no evidence for that at all. Furthermore, he is far too panglossian about the last years of John Paul II [and Josef Ratzinger's role in them]. Notably the simple and unavoidable fact that -- as the most powerful member of the Papal court of those years -- Benedict also shamefully neglected the sexual abuse scandal; seemingly he allowed the Pope to support the likes of Maciel. In that case, he contributed to the present scandal. So Ratzinger cannot be plausibly exculpated by the simple fact of his resignation. The real problem, surely, lies in the excessive centralisation of power [and punishment] in the Vatican, something for which I can find no scriptural [or, indeed, socioligical] justification. Decentralisation -- helped by courageous priests and bishops who are willing to resume their proper roles -- seems essential: otherwise it is difficult to believe that the Catholic Church has any future.

Dr John CARMODY | 13 February 2013  

'They assumed he would bring the same narrow focus to his leadership of the Catholic Church. The reality has been rather different. Certainly, in his approach to the liturgy and in his different attitudes to reactionary and liberal groups on the margins of the Catholic Church, the continuity between the Cardinal and the Pope has been noticeable' Think your wrong Andrew, these "Groups" if they are on the margins for the reason that the pope has put them there. They used to occupy the pews.

Peter Crew | 13 February 2013  

Well said Janice and Peter!!! I couldn't agree more with both of you! I must say I was delightfully surprised with Benedict's resignation (not shocked). And I expected so much from a German intellectual like him! His 'reign' was a disaster, especially due to all those children whose lives were totally destroyed for ever. Why couldn't they have a normal life? For an old man, who should have had all the wisdom that accumulates with age, Benedict emptied the churches, as Carlo Maria put it so well. With so many reactionary Cardinals selected by him, one wonders who will be the next CEO manager of the Vatican Corporation?!?

Nathalie | 13 February 2013  

Looking at this resignation on a purely human level, I think Benedict has chosen well. Who wants to see a repeat of the travesty of JP2 in his latter days being dragged around and propped up in what can only be seen as very undignified and pitiful manner and not becoming of the office.

Ignatius | 13 February 2013  

Whoever becomes the next Pope is bound to disappoint some Catholics because the Church is such a vast and disparate array of individuals and organisations, all with their own (often conflicting) agendas and the modern penchant for just wanting their own way. I myself don't think Benedict was that awful a Pope. The Curia (basically Church Administrative HQ) is, like most bureaucracies, conservative and set in its ways. The Pope is often, mistakenly, blamed for curial shortcomings or failure at national church level. He does set the tone and have overall control but cannot micromanage the Church. Perhaps the next Pope and the Church hierarchy can learn from the paedophilia debacle. All Christian denominations could and should. Many Catholics criticise the Pope (any Pope) for being either too conservative or too liberal. The Orthodox Communion, which does not have a single head, but which is a Communion of Churches, is as conservative, if not more so, than many Catholics perceive their own to be. The Pope has little (read no) authority or ability to change basic Church doctrine. There is often a (sometimes uninformed) debate on what constitutes doctrine and what is mere regulation. They are emphatically not the same. Benedict is to be congratulated on his decision to stand down. As Andrew inferred, there is a bogus mystique applied to the papal office: it is possible to stand down. Queen Elizabeth II has, in my opinion, the same mistaken idea as regards the monarchy: she could stand down. The Church, in its people, is a fallible, human organisation. Perhaps the Renaissance splendour and hubris, which still exists in some ecclesiastical quarters, here as well as "there", needs to be dispensed with: ring kissing and that sort of stuff. I don't think Benedict was "big" on that. It is going to be an interesting time for Catholics.

Edward F | 13 February 2013  

When a new Pope is elected, will B16 be "Pope emeritus" or go back to being Cardinal Ratzinger? If he will continue as Pope, I hope the new man doesn't choose the name "Benedict." B16 and B17 would be too much for Aussies who grew up with Playschool!

Gai Smith | 13 February 2013  

Re Dr John Carmody's comments about the Macial Maciel scandal, Cardinal Ratzinger commenced an investugation into Maciel as early as 1994, but in 1999 the matter was quashed (by whom?). Again in 2004 Ratzinger reopened the case after apparently deciding that "ënough was enough" after seeing JP2 greeting Maciel publicly in St Peters Square and kissing him on both cheeks in greeting. And of course we know that BenXVI acted swiftly to sack Maciel when he became pope in 2005. So, what unknown forces were protecting Maciel all this time, even from "God's Rottweiler"? Who was over-riding the Canon Law investigations? I think there's an interesting story yet to come from all this.

BruceS | 13 February 2013  

Gai Smith: The Pope will probably be Pope Emeritus. Sort of like King George VI's consort Queen Elizabeth became the Queen Mother on the accession of QEII. Can't see him being called the Pope Father, though!

BruceS | 13 February 2013  

I have entirely reviewed my view of the man and believe that the precedent has has just established will be , as AH has said, his greatest legacy. It was increasingly difficult to regard this once great church as being relevant in our lives. There is now a chance to retrieve that lost value and respect. I speak as a Catholic of the Anglican tradition.

graham patison | 14 February 2013  

Again, Andrew, a comment which hits the spot! The Pope's decision has another dimension and that is what it has to say to other, shall we say, aged labourers in the vineyard giving them the courage to think and listen to those promptings which say that the time has come to let go in the light of their possibly doing no favour to the church by continuing and becoming a potential embarrassment, As a 77 year-old Anglican priest, still digging in the field, I trust that I shall respond as did the Holy Father at what he saw as the appropriate time. This is even more reason why I am one of his admirers!

Stuart Blackler | 14 February 2013  

Personally my money is on Curialist Cdl Amato. However in 1978, I perused pics of papabile in L'Oservatore Romano and commented to fellow priests:"Well it certainly wont be him!!![viz:CDL Wojtlya]".

Father John George | 14 February 2013  

Our Pope made a very courageous decision resigning. He was aware of his capabilities. The "Polish" pope was past his use by date when he died. He was also a very good pope.Hope we get another good pope I'll pray for that

clem schaper | 14 February 2013  

Thanks for a good article. One of best things about the Pope's resignation is the precedent it sets for the modern papacy. It's a gift from God to know our limitations as well as our strengths.

Maureen | 15 February 2013  

Must say I am very comfortable with your last paragraph ,Andrew .I would go further by suggesting any of the many clones Ratzinger strategically elevated to the hierarchy should follow his recent example .Given this was over considerable years if one includes his term as de facto Pope in ailing years of JP2 .I realise it would include many of our ACBC ( the gutless who failed to rebel against the Vatican Inquisitors job on Bishop Bill M ).The abuse Royal Commission will possibly present another list of suitable resignees (Those who adhered to directives from Rome .) Regards John

John Kersh | 15 February 2013  

Priests are called to serve God through serving the body of Christ (the people) in the Church. The problem with an institution like the papacy as with the Archbishop of Canterbury is that the very role is an institution; serving an institution which has become largely ossified and as such these office holders are hamstrung from doing anything really visionary. The focus on the people of God is then lost. I would hope the Pope's actions will inspire anyone in high office who thinks they are indispensable to think again, for the greater good. Likewise priests should not feel they have to live up to the overwhelming expectations of the institution or their people who want them to lead but never be led. Like St Peter himself, this Pope realises he will be 'led' away before long and this shows his humanity and humility; his vulnerability even; just as our Lord was vulnerable. If only other priests would realise they need others and be prepared to be vulnerable at times, some travesties of priesthood and ministry, abuse too, would be avoided.

Pearl Luxon | 16 February 2013  

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