Papal resignations and other matters

It’s difficult to maintain a rigorously unchanging institution in the face of a social landscape that has changed beyond recognition is so short a time-frame – Pope Benedict’s resignation confirms this difficulty.

Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna

On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be stepping down for health reasons at the end of the month: an all-but unprecedented initiative, that has since been described as a 'bolt from the blue'.

Although the possibility of early retirement was all along on the cards - Pope Benedict himself had hinted as much on more than one occasion - the suddenness of the decision appears to have nonetheless taken even the Vatican by surprise.

So much so, that the Church felt the need to explain the situation: revealing that the Pope had recently undergone heart surgery - a detail that had previously been kept shielded form public view.

But because so many people tend to assume that all such decisions would have been meticulously pre-planned - an unsurprising assumption, seeing as how the Church enjoys a rather Byzantine global reputation- in so doing the Vatican may also have inadvertently flung open the floodgates of speculation.

Sure enough, the news had barely been reported in Italy when speculation began to spread regarding the 'real' reasons for the resignation: with suggestions ranging from a behind-the-scenes 'coup d'etat' to depose an unpopular Pontiff, in order to replace him with some one younger or more 'liberal'; a damage limitation exercise to stem a (real or perceived) haemorrhage of the faithful from the Church; possibly even some as yet unknown scandal concerning the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger's time at the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - which has assumed responsibility for investigating sex abuse cases since 2001.

And yet, in cases such as these, the simplest explanations are most often the likeliest to be true. At face value there is no reason whatsoever to doubt the official reasons for Benedict's resignation. Health issues are recognised the world over as valid reasons to abdicate high office; and while the outgoing Pope's immediate predecessor remained in office until his own passing in 2004 (after a long and debilitating illness, it will be remembered) it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that Pope Benedict - who incidentally has always been an eminently practical person - would have concluded that the hectic demands of the job were beyond the frailty of his age and his state of health.

From this point of view, the Pope's decision argues heavily in favour of a little-known perception of Josef Ratzinger as a deeply humble man: a perception that is very common among prelates who know him personally (as can be attested even by Maltese Church officials such as Bishop Charles Scicluna and Cardinal Prospero Grech), but which rarely extends beyond those limited confines: in fact, most people have a very different impression of the Pope so misleadingly known as 'God's Rottweiler'.

Ultimately, Benedict's formal reasons for stepping down suggest that he himself felt the calling of his office was simply too great for him to live up to at this stage of his life. This is itself is a supreme mark of humility - indeed it is difficult to imagine a more humble initiative than to willingly relinquish such an undeniably powerful role as the spiritual leader of a global community numbering over a billion souls.

Having said this: it is equally true that, humble though he may have proved himself at the last, the outgoing Pontiff will nonetheless leave in his wake a number of unresolved issues that will almost certainly trouble his immediate successor. Paradoxically these issues are unlikely to include the aforementioned sex abuse cases - unless more scandals are revealed in future - for even though these arguably caused the greatest damage to the Church's reputation in recent years, the fact remains that the Church under Benedict did indeed move to address such concerns... as can even be attested here in Malta, where the Pope personally met the victims of abuse.

But other thorny social issues such as gay rights, same-sex marriage, the changing models and definitions of the family; abortion; AIDS, contraception and the murky relation that exists between the two (especially in Africa, where the Church is arguably at its most influential)... these are all traditionally problematic areas for the Church, which have a direct bearing on the lives of millions of people worldwide.

Much closer to home is Pope Benedict's own declared aim to 're-evangelise Europe': an ambitious project which has so far involved lofty words and bold aspirations... but which is thrown into sharp focus by statistics which suggest that the opposite has happened instead: on Benedict's watch, Europe has demonstrably grown more secular and less religious.

Even here in Malta - a small country in terms of geographic size, but certainly not in terms of Catholic sentiment - we have all experienced tremors of these distant earthquakes: the divorce referendum being the most obvious recent example.

From that limited experience alone, we can all appreciate how difficult it must be to maintain a rigorously unchanging institution in the face of a social landscape that has changed beyond recognition is so short a time-frame.

Pope Benedict's resignation confirms this difficulty. One has to therefore applaud the humility with which he himself acknowledged his limitations.

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