In his final public address, Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday forcefully defended his decision to resign while trying to reassure Catholics still reeling from the shock of his unprecedented move.
For the first time since his stunning announcement on Feb. 11, the 85-year-old pope explained at length his decision to become the first pope in six centuries to resign. His tenure officially ends Thursday at 8 p.m. local time.
Benedict admitted that his resignation is a “grave” and “novel” act but, he added, his choice had been made “with profound serenity.”
“Loving the church means having the courage to make difficult, agonizing choices, having ever before oneself the good of the church and not one’s own,” he said.
If you want a crash course on how papal politics really works, look no further than the saga of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
On Friday, Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric grabbed headlines by telling the BBC that priestly celibacy was “not of divine origin” and that he’d be “happy” if priests had the option to marry.
On Saturday, O’Brien was back in the news, this time after four men reportedly accused him of “inappropriate acts” dating back to the 1980s.
By Monday, O’Brien had resigned as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh and announced he would skip the conclave.
From champion of married priests to disgraced churchman within 72 hours, O’Brien’s trajectory is stunning but also emblematic of the frenetic and fever-pitched campaigning that occurs during the tiny window between a pope’s death or resignation and the election of his successor.
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Wednesday confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI is considering changes to church law regulating the election of a new pope, but stopped short of saying whether voting could start earlier than currently planned.
Pope John Paul II’s 1996 Apostolic Constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis” regulates what happens between the death or resignation of a pope and the election of his successor.
It stipulates that the conclave of cardinals must begin 15 to 20 days after the end of the previous pontificate.
But after Benedict’s surprise announcement that he will resign on Feb. 28, several voices within the church have asked for an earlier start to the voting to shorten the time the Catholic Church is left without a leader.
VATICAN CITY — As of 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI will no longer be pope and the Vatican will go into “sede vacante” mode — a Latin expression that means that the seat of St. Peter is vacant.
So who’s in charge until a new pope is chosen? The “interregnum” between two popes is governed by ancient rituals and by institutions half forgotten even within the Vatican.
But it is also the only time that the Catholic Church comes close to vaguely resembling a democracy, with the College of Cardinals acting somewhat like a Parliament with limited powers as it prepares to choose the new pontiff in a closed-doors conclave.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, the surprising choice cast a pall over the liberal wing of the flock and left conservatives giddy with the prospect of total victory. Ratzinger had for decades served as the Vatican’s guardian of orthodoxy, the man known as “God’s Rottweiler,” and his vocal fans were crowing about the glorious reign to come.
“He’ll correct the lackadaisical attitudes that have been able to creep into the lives of Catholics,” the Rev. M. Price Oswalt, an Oklahoma City priest who was in St. Peter’s Square that April day, told The New York Times. “He’s going to have a German mentality of leadership: either get on the train or get off the track. He will not put up with rebellious children.”
Now, however, with Benedict set to leave office eight years later in an unprecedented departure, many on the Catholic right are counting up the ways that Benedict failed them, and wondering how their favorite watchdog turned into a papal pussycat.
For the first time in six centuries, the head of the Catholic Church is stepping down. Some, like Huffington Post Religion’s Senior Editor Paul Raushenbush, have suggested this is an indication that the stodgy religious institution is creeping its way toward modernism. Could it be that the role of Pope will be considered to be that more like a CEO than a sovereign ruler? Is there room within today’s church for its leadership to step down when they feel they can no longer adequately fill the tremendous demands heaped upon them?
Can Popes retire? And if so, do they have to give up those cool red shoes?
So if, indeed, the Catholic Church is moving in a new direction, why not consider a more thorough overhaul? Some have suggested that the next Pope should come from the southern hemisphere, given that this is where the faith is growing the most (actually, it’s not really growing much at all in the northern half of the world). But as some have suggested within the church, the process of selecting a Pope is not necessarily driven by creating a representative leadership.
That said, it seems a rare opportunity to do something exciting. I, like many people, assumed that the successor to Pope Benedict would have to come from within the College of Cardinals. But though this has been tradition for most of the life of the Church, Pope Clement V is a rare exception. He was plucked from a monastery to become Pope, with the hope of overcoming much of the perceived corruption within the College.
And though the College of Cardinals is not explicitly mired in scandal at the moment, the Church itself certainly has suffered some blows in the court of public opinion, as well as in the court of law, in some cases. So given that precedent, perhaps it’s time for another radical departure from tradition, one that will signal to the world that the Church is more committed than ever before to its mandate to care for the poor, and support the marginalized.