Pope Benedict’s resignation has shocked the world. Who knew that a “conservative” 85-year old could surprise us?
In many ways, his decision is a culmination of the years of work to better prepare the leadership of the Catholic Church to engage with a global world. Karol Wojytla was only 58 when he was elected as John Paul II. Possessing a strong intellectual background, he spoke at least 25 languages and was fluent in eight, had communication skills and knew global politics. During his pontificate and more so under the pontificate of Benedict XVI, priests named as bishops were younger than before.
The world has changed significantly, and the Church needs leaders who are more agile, supported by the natural endowments of relative youth. In the past, it might have made sense to nominate an older person who had a wealth of experience. Now, we need leaders who have experience and the ability to engage in a world that changes minute by minute.
Many Catholics see the role of the pope as simply a spiritual father who puts out documents now and then, and can be counted on for a blessing and a photo op with the occasional baby.
Yet the pope is responsible for the leadership of the Catholic Church and all the politics that comes with that. The Holy See has diplomatic relations with more nations than any other government and is actively leading Catholics around the world. Canon Law stipulates that the pope must be concerned for every soul in the world. Granted, there are plenty of people who would disabuse the pope of his concern for them. Nevertheless, he does have this responsibility.
It wasn’t until I went to study and live in Rome that I began to better understand the vast responsibilities and pressures of the papacy. When I worked at the Vatican newspaper, I was even more stunned. What John Paul II did every day would have been beyond the abilities of most retirees, not to mention much younger individuals.
On the day that Pope Benedict announced his resignation, I was on a flight from Rome to the United States after speaking at a plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Culture, made up of cardinals, bishops and lay experts. Despite the immense responsibilities that most members of the hierarchy already have, they made themselves available to engage actively in the sessions. Again, the responsibilities of their offices are immense, something that even naysayers should admit since they are quick to fault them in the cases of failure and neglect.
People often suggest that the Catholic Church should follow more of a corporate model. Yet not even the largest corporations have such vast obligations. Nor do they have the duties of a sovereign entity. The Catholic Church takes the meaning of the word “global” to a whole different level.
The most recent popes have been preparing the Church for leadership in a world the likes of which has not existed in human history. John Paul II was young and had the energy to visit more than 100 countries, taking the leadership of the Church outside the Vatican walls to the world. He was known to almost everyone.
Benedict was 78 when he was elected pope, at a time when he was planning to retire and live quietly in Bavaria with his brother. He made clear from the beginning that he would not keep the same schedule that had helped define his predecessor. Nevertheless, he contributed significantly during his pontificate.
In his decision to step down, I see someone who understands more than anyone else that being pope is not simply an honorary title. He has not shunned the commitment to a deep spiritual life on behalf of the world. The reality is that he lacks the physical stamina to be the active leader the global Church needs. Moreover, he has the humility to accept that.
On a very practical and political level, the pope needs to be strong in every sense, not just spiritually. Otherwise, there’s a risk that he will become the puppet of others, merely being a mouthpiece for their agenda. That’s hardly a way to fulfill papal duties. Benedict is right to avoid that risk and to do whatever he can to ensure that the leadership of the Catholic Church is as good as it can be, even if that means stepping down himself.
When you take this along with the move toward naming younger bishops, Benedict’s legacy will be to finalize the transition of the papacy into the global era. He has given a clear signal to the cardinals that the next pope must be one who has not only the intellectual and spiritual abilities, but also the physical strength and practical skills to lead an entity that is both a universal church and a sovereign entity.
Pia de Solenni (MoralTheologian.com) is a moral theologian and cultural analyst.