NORMAN — Pope Benedict XVI has reshaped the papacy simply by giving it up. But how?
As the first pontiff in six centuries to step down, Benedict has carved a new path for his successors who decide they cannot rule for life. But scholars say the repercussions could reach beyond just changing how pontiffs leave to ultimately shape perceptions about the authority and significance of the pontificate.
“A lot of what it will mean has to do with what subsequent popes do. Does this become a precedent for future popes to follow or not?” said Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.
Benedict’s pontificate will end at 8 p.m. Thursday. He plans no role in the conclave that will choose the next pontiff, and will retreat to a life of prayer in a monastery behind Vatican walls. His decision shocked the church. But papal resignations are expected to become more likely over time because of extended lifespans and the growing demands of the pontificate, Thompson said.
Travel is now a major responsibility due largely to the globe-trotting example of Pope John Paul II. Shepherding the 1.1 billion faithful requires constant contact through the Internet. These days, Catholics far from the Holy See can watch the weekly general audience, ask the pope questions on Twitter and pray in real time along with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. As a result, staying on until death can mean a very public decline. John Paul, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other health troubles, could no longer walk or talk when he died in 2005 at age 84.
The pope is regarded as a teacher, an international diplomat and an administrator, but he is also the vicar of Christ — a leader with a divine mission. Benedict’s retirement raised fears that the pontificate could be viewed as less holy. Some questions have even focused on the much misunderstood Catholic teaching on papal infallibility: With two popes, one emeritus and one in power, who will have the final say? In fact, infallibility applies to the office, not the person, and only when a pope invokes apostolic authority to define doctrine or morals for the entire church.
Yet, many Catholic scholars say the act has in some ways demystified the papacy, especially given the intense focus in the final days of Benedict’s pontificate to the 2012 scandal over leaked Vatican documents and what role the crisis had played in his decision to leave. Joseph Bottum, writing in The Weekly Standard, a conservative U.S. publication, called Benedict “a terrible executive of the Vatican.”
“There’s the relationship part — he’s your father — and your father is always your father. Then there’s the functional part — whether he’s up to the job,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis George in a phone interview. “The functional concerns, those have come to the fore now. We’ll see what, if any, impact that has as we go forward.”
Even with Benedict’s resignation, new popes are unlikely to emerge from a conclave thinking, “I’ll go in for 10 years or so then give it up,” said Francesco Cesareo, a specialist in church history and president of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. The significance of the office, its history and spiritual duties, will always make any decision to leave difficult.
At the Feb. 11 Vatican event when Benedict made his dramatic announcement, the 85-year-old leader said he had examined his conscience before God and decided his strength, due to old age, had “deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
“I’m sure Benedict agonized and prayed over this for a long time asking what would this mean for the church,” Cesareo said. “Benedict must have been thinking, ‘What will people think that I’m leaving? Will I be seen as abandoning the flock?’ He decided, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice this position, for the good of the institution.”’
John Paul did not step down in part out of concern that some Catholics would follow him and cause a schism. His decision was seen as a brave witness to human suffering. But his weakened condition also fueled fears that the church was effectively leaderless.
“If a pope is disabled, different people will be vying for power or trying to take over,” Thompson said. “Or nobody takes over and therefore it just drifts. People don’t feel it’s their place to make decisions for the pontiff. You don’t want the church just to drift.”
Many Catholics have argued that Benedict’s decision has only underscored the importance of the pontificate. He put the spotlight where it belongs, on the church, not on the man, and sent a message that the job is so important it cannot be carried out in a weakened state, they argue. Thompson compared the impact to when George Washington gave up the presidency after two terms, setting a precedent for future presidents.
According to Stephen White, a Catholic studies fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think-tank, Benedict has powerfully demonstrated that the pope’s primary role is one of service.
“The papacy, in other words, was not given him for his sake, but for the sake of the church’s mission,” White wrote on The Huffington Post.
A week after Benedict’s announcement, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he was only just starting to grasp the significance of the pope leaving. Still, Dolan dismissed worries that pontiffs would now be newly vulnerable to pressure to step down, either from a disgruntled public or factions within the church armed with opinion polls or questions about a pope’s health.
Dolan argued modern-day popes in many ways have been facing that challenge for years. And moving ahead, he argued they would have two strong models of how to approach the papacy: John Paul’s decision to stay until the end and Benedict’s choice to leave.
“I think we need to say this is extraordinary. This is exceptional. This is a once in a three- or four-century phenomenon,” Dolan said, discussing the abdication on his radio show on SiriusXM’s “The Catholic Channel.” “It’s not going to become something that every pope feels obliged to do.”