What God knows is not necessarily what God wills. Each pope is guaranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit from fallible definitions of faith and morals, but to suppose that each pope is there because God wants him there, including the unworthy successors of Peter, comes close to the unforgivable blasphemy against the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. Twenty year old Benedict IX was at least as nightmarish as his successor Gregory VI who usually is counted with his predecessor among the popes who relinquished their office. There are times, though, when the hand of God is not manhandled, and that, for instance, is why Cardinal Cooke once told me that he had never been so conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit as he was in the Conclave that elected John Paul II. It may also be that the sudden death of John Paul I, as stunning as recent events in the Vatican, was not untimely if it was part of a higher plan.
The Petrine office is not indelible like Holy Orders, and in 1415 Gregory XII nobly and efficiently made his resignation a kind of security for healing the Western Schism. Dante was so frustrated by what he considered dereliction of duty, that he put the abdicated Celestine V into the Inferno but that was his own Commedia, when the Church, not in fancy but in fact, knew he is in Heaven. In 2009 photographs were widely circulated showing Benedict XVI leaving his pallium at Celestine’s tomb, and many commentators then thought that this was more than a gesture of incidental piety.
As with the Spiritual Franciscans as a whole, almost in tandem with the earlier Montanists, Celestine V proved the utter impracticality of dovelike innocence without serpentine astuteness, and Boniface VIII was as right as was John XXII in condemning these “Fraticelli.” But Boniface also proved the desperate shortcoming of cleverness without innocence. Benedict XVI’s serene retreat to pray will not be like the last months of Pope Celestine who might nearly qualify as a martyr for the terrible treatment he endured for ten months until death when immured in the walls of the Fumone castle in Campagna. Celestine was confined to an unsanitary cell hardly large enough for a bed and an altar. We see in this the contempt that venal souls have for the motives of the humble, and Celestine was nothing if not humble. The role of Boniface in Celestine’s degradation has often been sanitized, but, as John Henry Newman wrote in the “Historical Sketches: “glosses are put upon memorable acts, because they are thought not edifying, whereas of all scandals such omissions, such glosses, are the greatest.” A decree of Boniface, making hay of the misfortunes of his saintly predecessor, spelled out for the first time the canonical case for papal renunciation:
Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, whilst still presiding over the government of the aforesaid Church, wishing to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, having deliberated with his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign. We, therefore, lest it should happen that in course of time this enactment should fall into oblivion, and the aforesaid doubt should revive the discussion, have placed it among other constitutions ad perpetuam rei memoriam by the advice of our brethren.
Benedict XVI certainly has known all this, for perhaps not since the Lambertini pope Benedict XIV has there been a pope of such mental acuity and historical erudition, nor probably has any pope since Gregory I, in his writings and witness, matched the magisterial eloquence and liturgical sensibility of this pope of Bavaria. The verdict of centuries from now will affirm the spiritual electricity of his Regensburg lecture, and how he spoke to the French academics in 2010, and, if words be immortal, his undying words in Westminster Hall. His general audiences regularly outnumbered those of his beloved predecessor and those accustomed to spectacle actually began to listen to the crystalline reasoning of what he said. Before he became pope, any form critic could detect his hand in Vatican documents when turgid prose suddenly broke into clarity. His first rate mind did not indulge the tendency of lesser minds to obscure what is profound and to think that what is obscure is perforce profound.
If he was expected to be a caretaker pope, he took care very well, proving himself unexpectedly radical in his reform of reform, which is more difficult than reform itself, for it restores the form that reformers forgot. So we had the renewal of liturgical integrity in an ecology of beauty, streamlining of the Curia, greater attention to episcopal appointments, the overdue beatification of Newman with all its portents for theological science, the Anglican Ordinariate which may be less significant for what it becomes than for the fact that it exists at all, and progress with the Eastern churches. His plans, like all “the best laid schemes of mice and men” were not completely realized. Not all that Benedict called “filth” was removed, and we can be sure that a media eager to affect being scandalized, will point out among those entering the Conclave, those who bring with them the shadows of what Benedict tried to dispel. But he continues to dignify in charity even those who may not understand that “dignitas.” He announced his renunciation of office in Latin, and by so doing indicated his hope that even if some of those listening may have mingled astonishment with incomprehension, his successor will be able to speak the official language of the Church he leads and the city he governs.
According to the postulator for the Cause of John Paul II, as early as 1989 Wojtyla had signed a letter of renunciation to be invoked should he become incapacitated. He reaffirmed this in 1994 but in the same year he told the surgeon operating on his broken leg: “I have to heal. Because there is no place in the Church for a Pope Emeritus.” It is only human to be so conflicted, and John Paul II opted against renunciation. The fact that Pope Benedict had scheduled various journeys, canonizations and an encyclical to be published “within the first six months of 2013” would indicate that his decision to step down, if considered a possibility for a while, was made more suddenly. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he must have suffered patiently when he saw decisions made that he would not have wanted made. And had he become pope sooner, many tragedies such as the Legionaries of Christ scandal and other defacements of the Church, would have be handled far differently. Although he is younger than Leo XIII who slogged on until his 93rd year, and his physical condition is far better than that of his predecessor in his last years, the experience of those years had to have shaped his present decision.
In an age of dangerously limited attention spans and fickle loyalties, there is a danger of proposing that popes last only as long as people want them. Romans have long said with their typical insouciance that when one pope dies you just make another one: “Morto un papa se ne fa un altro.” As everyone dies, it was important that John Paul defied the aimless Culture of Death by showing how to die, but that witness also came at the cost of care of the churches. There were times then when the Church Militant seemed in freefall, and the man who then was Cardinal Ratzinger must have anguished much in silence. He did not, however, trim the truth as he knew it and went so far as to say that a certain passage in “Gaudium et Spes” of which young Wojtyla was a principle architect was, “downright Pelagian.” Cardinal Dulles observed: “The contrast between Pope Benedict and his predecessor is striking. John Paul II was a social ethicist, anxious to involve the Church in shaping a world order of peace, justice, and fraternal love. Among the documents of Vatican II, John Paul’s favorite was surely the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. Benedict XVI, who looks upon Gaudium et Spes as the weakest of the four constitutions, shows a clear preference for the other three.”
The personality cults of our present age had to a degree shaped the young in the Church who had only known one pope. A most attractive charism of Benedict XVI has been his desire to vanish so that the faithful might see only Christ: “cupio dissolvi.” He strengthened the papacy by vaulting sanctity over celebrity. In a grand paradox, nothing in him has become so conspicuous as his desire to disappear. Christ gave the Keys to a Galilean fisherman with a limited life span. He chose Peter; Peter did not choose Him. When the pope relinquishes the Petrine authority, he does not submit a letter of resignation to any individual, for the only one capable of receiving it is Christ. This is why “renunciation” or “abdication” is a more accurate term than “resignation” in the case of the Supreme Pontiff. Unless this is understood, the danger is that a superficial world will try to refashion the pope into some hind of amiable but transient office holder. Popes are not Dutch royalty. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II has one tiara, not three, but the longer she wears it, the more she seems to grow in the affection of her people, which bond of respect is morally more powerful than any constitutional grant of rights and privileges. But the papacy’s authority is absolute and not gratuitous, and its exercise cannot be only conditional and validated by human approval. Pope Benedict pays tribute to that imperial obligation of his office by willing to relinquish it.
To risk the sort of truism that gets to be what it is by being true: Nothing is permanent in this world. The world is older than our centuries and cannot stop changing. We speak of papal protocols in the Middle Ages as if they happened long ago, but only from our limited perspective were they in the middle of anything. In view of the recently found fact that the declining dinosaurs were finally wiped out by an asteroid 66.03 millions years ago, the Middle Ages might as well have been when my alarm went off this morning. Study of the amino acids in the eyes of bowhead whales now reveals that these magnificent creatures can live over two hundred years, and there may be a whale in the Arctic right now that swam those same waters during the War of 1812. Line up ten of those whales and you are at the Resurrection. From that perspective, we should speak cautiously about Rome as the Eternal City. “Sub specie aeternitatis,” Rome really was built in a day. Pope Benedict attests by word and example: that “… here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).