Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign is a bold step in the ongoing reform of the Catholic Church, reminding us of an important truth: the papacy is a sacred trust, but its occupants are men, subject to the same human frailties that confront all of us. By facing up to the realities of age and infirmity, and the need for vigorous leadership in an age of multiplying challenges for the Church, he has lived up to the responsibilities of his unique ministry.
During his tenure as Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger earned a reputation as the Vatican’s hard core doctrinal conservative. This period of his life is controversial and, in my opinion, not inspiring. An academic by training and inclination, he brought the infighting style of the academy and its obsession with conformity to the governance of the Church. While many a theologian felt the stick of his discipline, the Church never had the conversations it desperately needed to have, and thus never addressed two fundamental issues: the priest shortage and a sexual ethic better informed by the insights of science and the laity. Of course, a good deal of the responsibility for this failure lies with his charismatic, but highly autocratic, predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
As pope, he did much better. Benedict XVI proved to be a good listener in the Church’s highest office. He acknowledged, publicly and firmly, the Church’s responsibility for the pedophile scandals. He was not afraid to discipline clerics implicated in it, even if they had been favorites of John Paul II, who had a weakness for charlatan holy men. Benedict bore witness, as only a pope can do, against the “anything goes” decadence of secular culture and the violence of militant Islam.
His decision to retire, to give up the prestige of his office and hand it over to a successor, may mark a critical step in the transformation of the papacy from a monarchical office to a truly pastoral one. And that is an act worthy of a successor to Saint Peter, who after all established the transcendent mission of the Church in the very capital of the Caesars.
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