The Reason Benedict Resigned

The Catholic world is largely shocked by the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s letter of resignation this morning.  The secular world assumes the worst—no, it desires the worst, and by insinuation worms doubts into the minds of even the faithful.

The secular world will tear through the brief letter and fixate upon the line about a “world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”  It will weave from these deconstructed words an existential tale of despair, scandal, and an authority which realizes it is no longer in touch with reality.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Benedict’s resignation is utterly consistent with his character.  It is traditional—he brings from our history and our law a fact and feature of the Papal Office: one can and—under certain circumstance—should put aside that office.

His resignation demonstrates once again the firm mark of a father and a teacher.   A father knows that his role is to provide example, instruction, and discipline, and ultimately put himself aside for the good of his own. The Petrine ministry is not exercised for a man, or for bishops and priests, or even for Catholics alone.  It is a ministry exercised for all those seeking God and for all those towards whom God’s mercy is extended.  It is a demanding office.

As with every text published by Benedict, this letter of resignation has no imbalance, flab, impression, or vagueness.  Not a word goes astray.  It is shot through with paternal love and professorial clarity.

An honest reading of this document can only lead to profound gratitude and sympathy for a suffering father who must understand each act and decision he makes as having “great importance for the life the Church.”

No one could doubt that this Holy Father has meditated profoundly, and I expect repeatedly, on The Pastoral Rule of St. Gregory the Great—that sixth-century handbook for those who hold the highest spiritual authority, what Benedict and others have called the ars artium (“the art of arts”).  Much of the book is a warning against the wrong reasons for grasping or holding on to power, followed by an outline of the virtues needed to exercise leadership well.  In the first book of The Pastoral Rule we find this line, which I believe has quietly echoed for some weeks in the Holy Father’s thoughts:  “He must be a man whose aims are not thwarted by the frailty of his body.”  The office of Peter is not a spiritual thing which discounts human nature.  That sacred ministry resides with a person, but that person must have the nature to exercise its rigors.

Benedict XVI has marked his pontificate by humility.  If anything, he has tried to depersonalize the use of authority, even that uniquely personal authority, the Petrine Office.  Yet we must always remember that the “person” of the Papal ministry is St. Peter, who with his successors acts in the person of Christ.  The papacy is a lived authority and a living authority and one that must respond to the needs of the Age.  It is natural that we love the concrete that we know, and love the particular character of our popes.  And we must do our best to accept that like a humble and adored teacher, Benedict now forces on his students a hard lesson: that the teacher should never be the focus of our final attention and love.

Our age has become overly focused on a model of “leadership” which is nothing short of superficial, for whom the shallow gilt of charisma and “personality” have blinded everyone to questions of duty and responsibility.  Benedict’s resignation teaches us once again that leadership—while exercised by a person—is not about that person. Benedict has set before our eyes the old Roman sense of officium—duty, office, responsibility.  Benedict’s embrace of the Petrine office has always been a reluctant one, and that reluctance is born of clear self-knowledge and deep understanding of the history and purpose of papal authority.

The following words are taken from one of the Holy Father’s General Audience in 2008.  He spoke on St. Gregory the Great and his reluctance to sit on the throne of St. Peter, reluctance that gave way to grace, prayer, and action:

Recognizing the will of God in what had happened, the new Pontiff immediately and enthusiastically set to work. From the beginning he showed a singular enlightened vision of the reality with which he had to deal, an extra-ordinary capacity for work confronting both ecclesial and civil affairs, a constant and even balance in making decisions, at times with courage, imposed on him by his office.

These are not words set down in a theoretical fashion. They rise from the Holy Father’s lips with experience behind them.

More moving are Benedict’s closing words from the following day’s audience.  Again, speaking on St. Gregory and his lonely pontificate, he ends:

Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and therefore was decidedly opposed to great titles.  He wanted to be—and this is his expression—servus servorum Dei. Coined by him, this phrase was not just a pious formula on his lips but a true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our servant. He washed and washes our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a Bishop, above all, should imitate this humility of God and follow Christ in this way.  His desire was to live truly as a monk, in permanent contact with the Word of God, but for love of God he knew how to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to make himself the “servant of the servants.”  Precisely because he was this, he is great and also shows us the measure of true greatness.

The Holy Father’s reasons for resignation spring from a grave sense of office and a faithful belief in what that office truly is. He has remained through his pontificate faithful and true to his vocation of father and teacher. Both father and teacher must daily put aside themselves to be true to their calling.

The papacy is not a mere person, it is not a great man, it is certainly not a bloodline or earthly principality. It is the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter. It is a sacred office entrusted to the entire Church. It is an enduring stewardship through time.  Behind the Vicar stand the Kingship of Christ and the enduring nature of His Church, yesterday, today, and forever.

By the grace of the Holy Spirit, Pope Benedict XVI has resigned. His Holiness has resigned because he understands his office and he wishes with firm resolve to help us to understand this and deepen our faith by remembering him for what he is and by lifting up our hearts and minds to the eternal Father and His Son, Our Supreme Pastor and Lord, Jesus Christ.

William Edmund Fahey


Dr. William Edmund Fahey is President and Fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

  • Kerry

    Well said indeed!

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  • ColdStanding

    The same guy is in charge that has always been in charge.

    Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us!

    • Of Course….& Benedict’s doing His Will, just as when he accepted the Papacy. He didn’t want to do that either, but he was Obedient…..Like Peter, when he met Christ as he (Peter) was leaving Rome due to the danger of the persecutions. Peter too, was Obedient, he returned to Rome.. What a tough concept, ‘Obedience’!! A concept that has been ignored to the very destruction of our Culture. The only time force has been used to effect “Obedience” in our culture, is to back up immoral laws, like Abortion, to send young men & women off to War some where, to pay taxes (that finance immoral laws), & sometimes, in our courtrooms. However, even Murderers, are not held to “Obedience”, because of a presumed “tough life”. .

  • Johann

    God bless Benedict XVI and may his retirement bring him the grace and peace that Jesus has promised his followers. Let the secular world and the American media do its worst; they are just idle flies on the broom of history. The Church will always prevail; “the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church” Now is the time for all faithful Catholics to come together and pray for our church. Christus vincit; Christus regnat, Christus , Christus imperat.

    • yo


  • “The Pope will be forced to leave Rome”……Mary’s Prophetic words in a warning on the necessity of Repentance. She didn’t say “How”…Ties in with Benedict’s leaving of the ‘Palladium’ (Symbol of the Pope’s Office) at Celestine’s grave, around 2009-2010…

    • cestusdei

      He is retiring to a monastery in the Vatican, so he is not being forced to leave Rome.

  • Ford Oxaal

    Cardinal Ratzinger’s election to Pope seemed like a miracle to some of us who were associated at one time or another with Archbishop LeFebvre and the Society of Pius X. It often seemed Cardinal Ratzinger was our only solace from the Vatican — and then he became Pope! It was extraordinary indeed.

  • Chris

    Beautiful article.

  • Ford Oxaal

    The ovation for Pope Benedict at the March for Life youth rally in D.C. (a Mass for 17,000+) was just **unbelievable** — God Bless Pope Benedict!!


  • hombre111

    Thank you, Pope Benedict, and God be with you. Your wonderful act has cut the ground from underneath the next narcisist in the papacy who imagines that he must rule on when his body and mind are gone.

  • FitzO

    The devil has attacked him but like Job, the Holy Father has not spoken anything against God.

    Did not the devil fail in Job’s case? Did our Lord Jesus Christ not say that His Church would outlive all the antics of the evil one – the devil?

    Our God will give us a Pope that is truly Catholic like Pope Benedict XVI.

    God is not asleep… Bless you Holy Father.

  • recovered catholic

    ” The secular world assumes the worst—no, it desires the worst, and by
    insinuation worms doubts into the minds of even the faithful.”

    Hogwash. The “secular world” couldn’t care less when you people trade one old white guy in a cape for another.

    • James_Locke

      Go home troll.

    • papish

      then why is every media outlet posting his resignation as front page news?

      • Phil

        Because it is, in fact, front page news. But the media doesn’t have a malicious agenda against him.

    • RuariJM

      so why are you bothering to comment or even pay attention, if it is a matter of such supreme indifference?

    • Your ignorance is astounding, and ignorance begets the rudeness that is seen in your stupid remark.

  • Mar Domingo

    Thank you very much for this beautiful article, May God Pope Benedict XVI, May God Bless the Catholic Church.

    • Mar Domingo

      “May God Bless Pope Benedict XVI”

  • Racs

    as a devoted Catholic here in the Philippines,I totally understand Pope’s decision and he is a man who thought not only for himself. I am a bit hurt not because of his resignation but because how the men who tried to pull down the catholics thinks that we chose the wrong man..they just dont understand and why they kept on spreading bad news about the Pope?/i just don’t know why they’re so happy with this..The Catholic church is not even falling a bit..It is renewed by this event..

  • dch

    The secular world really does not care. The man is old and tired, I wish him well in his final days.

    • musicacre

      The secular world is burnt out on “things” and therefore do not really even truly care about themselves.

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  • Robert

    The pope is not a CEO he shouldn’t have resigned. The fact that people think that the pope is like a CEO is disturbing enough.

  • AJ

    I want to know. What about the popes before PBXVI? They didn’t have these characteristics? Different times maybe? But the same problems our Church is facing now are the same problems our Church was facing during PJPII’s twilight years. Should PJPII have resigned then? Please enlighten. Sincere question here.

    • RuariJM

      You obviously saw the condition that JPII got into in his declining years. So did HH Benedict XVI. The two gentlemen knew each other very well but they took different views; For JPII, the dignity of life was important to demonstrate, even when that life looked undignified – he was, by his example, speaking against euthanasia and the dismissal of human life as worthless at any stage.

      Pope Benedict seems to have taken a different view. He believes that the challenges ahead require someone with more vigour, more physical strength and mental stamina. He is also dignified – ver much so, IMHO – but different. I suspect that the machinations around the last few years of JPII’s life caused him some distress and concern.

      Answering the rest of your question – although it was not unknown for Popes to survive into their 80s, it was less usual. Also, we see Popes much more these days – a tired, worn out and ill Pope could be a secret for years. We genuinely don’t know how well Leo XIII was, for example – he went on till the age of 93, which makes him the oldest Pope of the XX century. However, one can venture that, in the past, those Popes who survived into significant old age were probably quite healthy, because the resources of modern medicine that can keep old people alive beyond their sell-by date simply weren’t available.

      Hope that helps!

      • daniel

        thank you Pope Benedict. thank you for teaching us the value of humility. you will always be in my heart.

  • nina

    thank you papa.pray for us ….

  • maria

    We are grateful that he offered his services to mankind as a good follower of Christ. As we go to this kind of situation our faith must go on because God promised us that He will not leave us. Things may passed but His words will remain. His good deeds will remain in our hearts and he will be included in the list of the Popes no matter what. Position does not really matters in the eyes of God but his humbleness and acceptance. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak for his body is now deteriorating. May God heal him to whatever sickness he is encountering. This is the time that all Roman Catholics to be united in praying for the welfare of the Church. Let others condemn us, for after the storm, a new beginning appears., May God bless us all.

  • Michael

    Pope Gregory the Great’s, and what seems to be Pope Benedict’s “reluctance to hold the office” reminds be of another great leader: George Washington. Great leaders seem to have something in common, not falling victim to pride and great humility.


    That leadership although exercised by a person is not about the person..what a great line. Great article.

  • pbecke

    A wonderful, wonderful article. What a corrective to the garbage we read from so many other sources.

    • maneyAk

      It is not very Christian, or respectful to the Pope and Church, to be so full of hate and scorn. I’ll pray for you.

  • Ruth

    In his inauguration BXVI said, “Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” Perhaps it is as simple as that: we did not pray for him enough.

  • Thank you, Mr. Fahey. I feel so much now, after struggling with reading all the different articles out there.

  • kayjay


    The Pope is the figure-head of the Church and is the living ‘Christ’.He took the job knowing this and is now leaving. What about his duty to the ‘Fold’? This is bigger than him, and if what you say is true, he should not leave…! Your points put a duty on him,not a duty to leave,but to remain true to his duties. Unless ,of course, there are other factors.

  • Courtney

    I dislike the bit about the secular world. As a non-Christian I celebrate this decision, not condemn the man and certainly not “desire the worst.” He understands his weakness in both body and mind and his inability to maintain his office. He made an excellent decision. Please don’t assume the worst of us. We can appreciate the cultural and historical implications of this event without malice toward religion. All the best to Pope Benedict XVI and to Christian and non-Christian readers alike.

    • Read or listen to the commentary in the New York TImes or NPR for example. They overwhelmingly use the occasion to spout off anti-Catholic drivel that is the trademark of the Know-Nothing media.

      • Courtney

        I am not saying that it doesn’t happen – and it’s disappointing when it does. However, the NPR and New York Times certainly don’t represent the entire community, nor do we all agree with malice. Much in the same way that saying that “Listen to Father X and Christian Magazine Y, all Catholics are women-degrading!” is untrue and cuts off voices of others. As a gay, left-wing atheist one would assume that Catholics would desire the worst in my character and that is certainly not the case with the close Christian and Catholic friends that I have. Certainly, we disagree on certain issues, but the nature of our communication harbours understanding and empathy. Something that, as you correctly point out, simply does not exist in mainstream discourse.

        Specific voices are louder, certainly, and carry more weight in discourse. My point is that secular is not synonymous with malicious, much in the same way that Christian is not synonymous with archaic. I certainly think we need to be more understanding of one another and I wish that more people agreed. Cheers.

        • Well, ok, I will do my best to be understanding. It remains that the leading voices of the Secularism are dumbfounded by pretty much anything related to Religion, and perhaps as a result of their insecurity, malicious towards Religion.

  • schmenz

    While I always enjoy the writings of Dr Fahey the truth of the matter is, right now, that no one knows for sure why Benedict abdicated and that anything we write is only speculation.

    The crisis in the Church is so serious, the jackals surrounding the Faith so vicious, the traitors within so powerful that every Catholic should spend some time with the beads to pray that God will at last send us a man with the courage to clean up the horrendous mess. Benedict has done some good things; but he has failed to govern with strength and firmness that the catastrophic situation.

    Let us fast, and pray, and fast and pray, from now until the days of the conclave. The situation is dire.


    • Hsmokes

      The situation is dire. There is no sound reason (like the last time this happened) for resignation. The Holy Spirit animated Pope JP II until the end. No less could be expected for Pope Benedict.
      We will have a situation in which two popes (one official) will be living at the same time and this could be very problematic. I hope all will make a good Lent and pray for God’s mercy and judgement in this matter.

      • Jacobhalo

        Pope John Paul II was NOT in control of the Vatican about the last 4 or 5 years of his pontificate. Others were running the show. He should had abdicated too.

  • Ramanie

    May God bless you Pope Benedict XVl abundantly. We admire his humility.

  • windjammer

    A stunningly beautiful article about a great Pope and a humble servant of God. A brilliant intellectual, teacher and theologian for sure but above all a man of humility, prayer and grace.
    He is the antithesis of what is missing in the “leaders” of today no matter what walk of life they are in. God Bless Pope Benedict.


  • We thank the Lord for giving us Pope Benedict XVI, a scholar, pastor and staunch defender of the Catholic faith.

    His resignation must not be construed as a weakness in his faith and character.

    Rather, it shows that Our Holy Father, despite having infallibility over doctrines of faith and morals, is human.
    Let us be reminded that his assumption to the Petrine throne does not grant him immortality or longer life.

    Some people say that the Papacy is not a job that one can just walk away after a month’s notice.
    But see this, Benedict is an intelligent person. He himself believes he cannot carry out his duties.

    Is his devotion and work for the past 61 years not enough?

    Are we going to ignore his 61 years of devotion and work for the Church just because he wants rest?

    That is very unfair.

    If we believed back in 2005 that the Most Holy Spirit inspired the College of Cardinals to elect the then Cardinal Ratzinger to be the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, why can’t we believe that God has a purpose for his actions?

    Maybe God thinks that Benedict XVI might be too old to deal with the problems of the Church. Or that that He believes Benedict has done enough and it is time to rest. You and I will never know God’s plans, just as we are ignorant of the things that yet have to pass.

    And, aren’t we a Church of Tradition built in FAITH?
    We built traditions with faith, and we are accountable to our faith alone

    Should we doubt Benedict XVI’s action now?

    Should we leave or despise him now?

  • The reasons I can understand, and yet I still weep to see Pope Benedict go. He looks tired, even sad, and yet he still has that quiet glow of faith that so moves me.
    God bless Benedict, and the Church, and let his successor be worthy.
    I still wish I could go hug him.

  • terri

    Thanks for the great article and for putting into words what I could not. I have shared with friends and relatives who struggle to understand why?

  • The church doesn’t exist to guage public opinion then respond in a way that will mollify. That is what the television networks exist for. I celebrate Pope Benedict for not bowing to the relativism of the west, also not actively alienating the west and expanding the church into countries with depressed or emerging economies. One must stand for something or fall for anything. Pope Benedict has honored the church with his policies. I hope and pray that the next Pope will continue to weed bad seeds out of the priesthood while never bending to outside pressure simply because it is outside pressure.

  • Boreas

    I wondered when I heard the announcement if this might set a precedent and perhaps become the norm.

    With improvements in medical science people are living longer and it might not be in the church’s best interests to have a Pope who might lack the physical and mental strength for the job. As I understand it this was Pope Benedict’s reason for resigning.

    Does anyone think that Popes serving say 6 to 10 years and then stepping down could become the standard practice?

  • The pope is a job, “he aint god brother, he’s my grandfather”… excellent proof that the Pope represents the earthly political whims, laws and politics of the earthly church and not God’s Mystical Church…

  • Wiser Than Bill…

    poppycock! the ABDICATION is “ultra vires” and “de fact non de jure” that will cause the Church great harm. there will now be two popes, not one, and people will begin to question the legitimacy of the second…We race…RACE to the END TIME! pure fiction, a waste of time! thomas more would have been the exact one to see this. bollocks!

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Read the decree of Pope Boniface VIII in Liber Sextus I, vii, 1, confirming that Pope Celestine V ” by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign.”

  • Annie

    The Pope was forced out. I read this last summer and it came true. Here is the link, see it for yourself.