I learned about Pope Benedict’s decision to renounce his office at around 4:30 in the morning, in a phone call from a friend on the East Coast.
He told me, “Prepare yourself for a shock.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Pope Benedict has resigned.”
It actually wasn’t a shock.
I hadn’t expected the announcement, but I wasn’t very surprised.
I accept and respect his decision, as disappointed as I am.
I’d been picking up on clues that, for Pope Benedict, this was a real possibility.
One clue—as has been widely reported—was found in the 2010 book-length interview he did with Peter Seewald titled Light of the World.
That year he had been pounded in the press concerning his role in the sexual abuse scandal back when he was the Archbishop of Munich. As expected, the press got the facts wrong and tried to portray him as an evil monster.
The subject of his leaving office came up in this context, when Seewald asked him:
The great majority of these [sex abuse] cases took place decades ago. Nevertheless they burden your pontificate now in particular. Have you thought of resigning?
Notice the question: “Have you thought about resigning?”
Pope Benedict does not answer this directly. Instead, he says:
When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view.
He goes on, however, and what he says next suggests that he has, indeed, been giving thought to leaving office. He’s been thinking about it on the level of “What might the appropriate timing be?”
One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.
He thus envisions two circumstances in which such an announcement would be appropriate: (1) at a peaceful moment or (2) when one simply cannot go on.
The surprise there is the naming of “a peaceful moment” as a time when a pope could leave office.
Presumably that means a situation in which there is not something like the sexual abuse scandal happening but also a situation where the pope’s strength has not so utterly left him that he “simply cannot go on.” In this situation, he could go on if there were a crisis, but since there is not, since there is “a peaceful moment,” he can leave office with out a problem.
Seewald, wanting to know whether this was a real possibility or only a hypothetical answer then asks:
Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?
Pope Benedict replies:
Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.
The fact that he is so matter-of-fact about the answer indicates that he has given significant thought to it and has concluded that it is a real possibility.
What is striking here is that he says it so matter of factly when he is talking about something that has not happened in 600 years.
This signals a clear shift in direction from the historical norm.
Normally popes have died in office. Surely there have been moments in the past when a pope’s capacities diminished to the point that he was not able to do the job in an active way.
Every pope has a final illness.
But the world situation has changed, and the papacy plays a different role in the world today than it did in the past. The pope is much more a public figure, and one of importance not just to Catholics but to non-Catholics as well.
Presumably, this kind of thinking informed Benedict’s willingness to entertain leaving office as a real possibility, compared to his 59 immediate predecessors, who all died in office.
In any event, there were already indications that Pope Benedict might one day leave office.
I’d been praying for him to be given both life and strength to go on—in fact, I’d been praying for this just a day or two before the announcement was made.
But Pope Benedict deemed that the time for him to leave was appropriate.
It, at last, seemed to be “a moment of peace.”