Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz.
Pope Benedict XVI came into office with the reputation of a conservative hardliner, a vigorous defender of orthodoxy who wanted to restore Tradition — yes, with a capital “T” — to a church that was seen as disturbingly undisciplined.
Yet with the stunning announcement that he is resigning as the 264th successor to Saint Peter, Benedict may wind up fundamentally changing the way the church and the world view the papacy.
That’s because the papacy has come to represent more than an office, and the pope more than just a higher-ranking priest or bishop who enjoys lifetime tenure, a nice Vatican apartment, and the privilege of wearing a white cassock no matter the season.
Instead, the papacy is seen as a divine mission unlike any other in the church, and one that ends only in death.
“Christ did not come down from the cross,” the late John Paul II, Benedict’s immediate predecessor, would tell aides who wondered if his failing health and public suffering should compel him to relinquish his office.
A man is elected pope by the cardinals, yes, but at the behest of the Holy Spirit, according to Catholic theology. He takes a new name, and can’t even go home to collect his things: He moves into the Vatican right away, inhabiting a new identity in a new position — so superior that canon law says a pope can resign, but says he cannot resign to anyone.