Resigning the Petrine office is a unique situation. But the singularity of Benedict’s abdication, in particular, extends beyond the obvious. I’d like to offer some ideas on why that’s so, and on the character of the negative sentiment felt by so many good people toward him.
A friend put it to me this way: The crisis of the papacy in the last few years is really one of ripping off the bandaid. We’ve had wonderful teachers on the Chair of Peter for decades, and now we don’t. There was a wholeness about the teachings of both Wojtyla and Ratzinger, and it was reflected in the authority they wielded during their reigns. Catholics could sit back a bit and accept their pronouncements at face value. Many felt more comfortable quoting Fides et ratio or Deus caritas est than relying on scripture itself.
I can relate. Ratzinger’s careful but lively treatment of Christian faith is probably the best any of us will see in our lifetime. Yet the memorable, quotable, comfortable parts of it are but the fruit of a deeper, harsher struggle to engage the faith personally and critically. For every mention of the “dictatorship of relativism” or truth “not determined by a majority vote” we scant recall the less sightly moments — endorsing condom use by male prostitutes as a “more human way” of sexuality, or his “green” initiative to make the Vatican carbon-neutral, or advocating a stronger world government in Caritas in veritate. Hans urs von Balthasar even famously criticized him for being too liberal about the virgin birth of Christ.
In a word, Ratzinger is a standard for mature, modern Catholic faith. But he is also a cause of the things that make it scandalous. The impact of his pithy, pious statements as cardinal and pope are a result of the impact he himself experienced in the age of the Second World War and Second Vatican Council, a time when the whole world was undergoing an epic social and moral realignment, and when it required new, massive theological and spiritual insights.
That the same man should virtually pioneer a new understanding of the papacy, too, is not such a surprise. (It’s arguable that this really began with his predecessor, albeit in a more subtle way.) Benedict’s “expression” of the papal office was primarily as teacher, and his authority was manifested mainly in that way. But he was first and forever a student. Similarly, before he was pope, or cardinal, or bishop, or even a priest, he was a baptized Christian with a personal relationship with Christ, for which he would be ultimately accountable. This insight comes into full focus with the resignation.
Ripping off a bandaid is a small death. It’s immediately, physically painful, but more importantly it promises to expose an unhappy truth, one that sometimes turns out to look even worse than what you’d hoped. Pope Benedict’s self-effacement, with all its awkwardness and strange pageantry, was a touch of death we all had to experience. We could no longer assume that the papal office alone would work to cover our wounds; and in fact the wound we suffered had not fully healed beneath it. More medicine, more healing is still required.
The antidote to the wound of modernity — in the broadest sense of the term — is the sort of deep freedom displayed by Joseph Ratzinger five years ago. Mature Christian faith gives a wide berth to the dictates of informed conscience. To reduce Christian action merely to what’s politically expedient, either in a secular or religious way, undermines that maturity, and is in fact just as “modern” as the social and moral upheaval it aims to combat. Even if there’s more to the story and intrigue surrounding the resignation that will eventually come to light, the personal decision of the Holy Father was, I believe, a final public instruction on the practical, sometimes uncomfortable character of deep faith expected for each and every Christian.