Papa Ratzinger’s resignation blow

Ratzinger’s resignation really is unparalleled. So what gives? 

By Gary Scarrabelotti

Ever since his interview on the state of the Church with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, published in 1985 under the title “The Ratzinger Report”, I have been an admirer of Joseph Ratzinger.  

When he was elected Pope on 19 April 2005, I reckoned it was a great day for the Church. I still think so. But news of his resignation as Bishop of Rome and Vicar of St Peter makes me more sad than if the news had been of his death. 

There are many things to admire about Ratzinger, the clarity and profundity of his thought, writing and speech, in particular.  In this he surpassed his otherwise astonishing predecessor, Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II.   

Equally impressive was Ratzinger’s readiness to speak openly of things that today are mentioned rarely in “the public square”.  I think especially of four remarkable speeches:  

    • One was to the German Bundestag in Berlin on 22 September 2011. This was on the natural law foundations of Western legal systems and on the duty of politicians to answer the “fundamental” questions by appeal reason and the natural law. 
    • The second was made in Westminster Hall, London, on 17 September 2010.  This was on religious freedom and the role of the Christian faith in public life of the Western world. 
    • The third was delivered in the College des Bernadins, Paris, on 12 September 2008.  Here Pope Benedict delivered a brilliantly orchestrated account of the theological roots of Western civilisation and on the “disaster for humanity” embedded in philosophical positivism. 
    • Finally, the greatest of them all, and the first in the series, was his address at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006.  In this he spoke about reason and its accord with the nature of God. 

Defender of the culture 

If Western civilisation survives – and it’s line ball – these four speeches will surely take their place among the greatest in the Western canon.   

Ratzinger had to endure media derision and contempt for his Regensburg address. His crime was to remark apropos of Islam that (in my own words) if conversions induced by violence were contrary to reason, and if it were the nature of a god to be above reason, then forced conversions would be foreign neither to that god nor to its cult. 

This is compelling logic confirmed by historical experience.  It is, however, an inconvenient truth for Western opinion makers and political leaders who are, understandably, afraid of Islam and who hope, by denying its true character, to reach an accommodation. 

If Ratzinger did nothing during his pontificate other than to deliver his Regensburg address, he would have rendered Western civilisation a great service.  

On the strictly religious front, Pope Ratzinger has two achievements under his pontifical sash – much more important achievements than is generally understood.  

If Ratzinger did nothing during his pontificate other than to deliver his Regensburg address, he would have rendered Western civilisation a great service.

Church reforms 

First, there is the so-called “Anglican Ordinariate”, established in November 2009. The Ordinariate provides a way for Anglicans to return to full union with the Catholic Church while preserving, as far as possible, their communal identities and spiritual and liturgical traditions.  

Secondly, there was his liberalising the use of the traditional Latin liturgy. Outlawed, effectively, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (11 October 1962 – 8 December 1965), Pope Benedict’s legislation on the matter, in force since  September 2007, provides that any priest of the Roman rite might celebrate the old Latin Mass without the permission of his bishop.  

Disinterring the once buried Latin Mass formed part of a strategy to respond to critiques of the new liturgy from within the Church and, at the same time, to resolve the “split” between Rome and dissident traditionalists clustered around the Society of St Pius X, a movement of secular clergy founded in 1970 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. 

Restoring peace within the Catholic Church, which has been convulsed by conflict over doctrinal and liturgical issues since Vatican Council II, and mending divisions between Christians that go back to the Reformation – and as far back as 1054 for the Orthodox – have been abiding preoccupations for Pope Benedict. 

As he wrote to his fellow bishops at the time he freed up usage of the old Latin rites: 

“Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to unable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew  … Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.” 

For the most part, this cri de coeur has gone unheard among the all too often tin-eared, indifferent and sometimes hostile bishops of the Catholic Church. Thus Ratzinger’s great initiatives have so far yielded little fruit: the Latin Mass liberalisation has been limited, and attempts to insert a sense of tradition and order into the new liturgy have had but a sputtering start; negotiations with the Society of St Pius X have stalled; the Ordinariate is opposed by liberal bishops who can’t abide the thought of conservative Anglicans coming back to the Church; and, in any case, there aren’t a lot of Anglicans with the right stuff to effect corporate union with Rome.  

(Perhaps the Ordinariate is more important for the signal it sends, indirectly, to the Orthodox about how well they would be received back by a pope after Benedict’s heart: with their metropolitans, bishops, glorious liturgy, theological traditions and church law intact.)  

Despite limited short-term progress, Ratzinger’s accomplishments in laying legislative, institutional, and more importantly, theological and liturgical foundations for internal peace and external reconciliation are matters of great potential consequence for the future of the Church.   

So why is a Pope with such powers of speech and intellect, and with some notable achievements to his credit, resigning his commission?  

The precedents 

If you look across the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church up to seven popes might have resigned and, of these, only four resignations have been certainly documented.

In the few days since Pope Benedict’s shock announcement, we have heard countless references to the fact that it is 600 years (598 to be exact) since the last papal resignation, that of Gregory XII in 1415. But this case is simply not comparable.   

With Gregory XII we are talking about the ending of a schism in the course of which there were, at one time, three claimants to the papal throne: one in Rome, one in Avignon and another in Bologna. The latter died in 1410 and left Rome and Avignon to tough it out.  Both eventually agreed to resign; Avignon went first, and Rome (Gregory XII) called a Council to elect his successor and then resigned. Nothing like the present case. 

People are also comparing Ratzinger – even, allegedly, Ratzinger himself – with Celestine V who reigned for five months in 1294.  But again there is nothing in common. 

Pietro del Morrone was an 85-year-old hermit, ascetic, founder of a severe branch of Benedictines, and reputedly a miracle worker.   

After the death of Nicholas IV, the College of Cardinals – only 12 in number – divided by family loyalties and empty-headed rivalries of the Italian-male kind, tried for over two years to elect a Pope. In sheer desperation they finally seized upon the holy Pietro, who fiercely protested his election, but then, soon after, fell into the political power of Charles II of Anjou who kept him in Naples.   

Here the guileless monk, with no experience of politics, proved a cypher in the hands of Charles and incompetent in governing the Church not the least because he could not conduct business in Latin.  

Desperate to escape his “protector” and to return to his hermitage, he resigned his post – an act then thought to be impossible. His successor, Boniface VIII wisely had the easily manipulated Pietro held under guard until he died, and the harsh Dante, in his L’Inferno, damned the poor man to hell. No Pope thereafter has taken the name Celestine – the Church did canonise him, however. 

Ring any bells? None at all.   

Case Ratzinger 

Cardinal Ratzinger was not elected pope in desperation by a divided, undermanned, and indecisive all-Italian conclave.  He was, moreover, the standout candidate.  Needless to say he is an accomplished Latinist; and, far from being ignorant of the Vatican machinery of government, he has had long experience of it. He is not labouring under political duress and has proved himself capable, more than once, of driving through initiatives in the face of severe opposition even within the Vatican.  

True, Papa Ratzinger is old and getting older and weaker quicker than he would like;  but this is not a crisis for a rounded man, far less for a Pope who can call, more confidently perhaps than others, upon the aid of God. In any case, having to do your job as an old man is normal for a Pope who, in this case, has intellectual powers undimmed. 

So let’s get this straight: Ratzinger’s resignation really is unparalleled 

OK, then, what gives? 

One of the mysteries of Ratzinger’s pontificate is why he spent so much time and effort writing three books of theology when being a theologian is not in his job description.

While Ratzinger has proved capable of governing when he wants to, he has not done so consistently and all the signs are that the Vatican bureaucracy is in disarray.  

One of the mysteries of Ratzinger’s pontificate is why he spent so much time and effort writing three books of theology when being a theologian is not in his job description.   

A pope’s job is to define disputed teaching when necessary, to teach day in and day out, and to govern the Church. Pope Benedict has done neither the first nor the last of these tasks. 

Perhaps he is constitutionally unsuited to government.  Prior to the last conclave he is supposed to have warned his many admirers, “I am not a man of government”.  

If you are made Pope, however, you have a duty to rule. Ratzinger’s strategy of devolving government to his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has proved a mistake. In fact, Ratzinger’s theological work – which appears not to have been hampered at all by the advance of old age – may have contributed to mismanagement of his personal office and betrayal by his butler. In this humiliation lies a clue to his resignation.   

It is not, however, the only one.  

Vatican II reinterpreted 

Negotiations with the Society of St Pius X have thrown up big issues, such as:  

“How is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council to be interpreted?” 

Rome under Ratzinger has replied, unexceptionally,  

“In the light of tradition.” 

That’s fine, but the next question is the problem: 

“How does tradition interpret Vatican II?” 

Well, that work has yet to be done.  An unkind observer might suggest that the pope has been too busy writing to set about interpreting. Be that as it may, even to begin the work systematically to interpret Vatican II, by any standard other than itself, would unleash a mighty struggle within the Vatican and the wider Church.  

The Vatican II question is no longer marginal.  It’s no longer a piddling challenge hurled by a few grumpy Frenchmen from outside the tent. In recent times, the questions have been asked more loudly and insistently on the inside: principally by a group of mainly Italian theologians: the Swiss-Italian Romano Amerio (d. 1997), Divo Barsotti (d. 2006), Enrico Maria Radaelli, Roberto de Mattei, Brunero Gherardini, and a Russian-born German, Athanasius Schneider (auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakstan.)  

These folk look on this question not as a mere intellectual exercise, but one as central to the survival of the Catholic Church in a world deeply hostile to it.

Benedict XVI is a penetrating thinker. Given the drift of his own writings and public statements, he must feel the force of the Amerio-Schneider argument. He cannot do, however, what they call for.  He lacks the caste of mind required to throw aside obstacles to a reassessment of Vatican II, like Secretary of State Bertone and Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano.  He lacks, moreover, the power that great leaders have of inspiring awe in their subordinates: a holy fear needs to go before any Pope who dares to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, a necessary precondition for tackling the potentially explosive tasks that lie to hand.

In any case, Papa Ratzinger, despite his searing criticisms of Catholic life and thought after Vatican II, is too constitutionally wedded to Vatican II itself to re-evaluate its foggier and, hence, more controversial statements on such things as liturgy, religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality to name but the hottest issues.

All is not as it seems.

This resignation is a sign of an unfolding crisis within the Church and an admission by a lovable and admirable man that he is not up to the job of handling the even stormier times that are, he foresees, not far ahead.

I am sad that he has resigned.  But if he judges that he is not up to the work, then he has done the right thing.

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