ON FEBRUARY 12, 2013, POPE BENEDICT XVI, invoking poor health, abruptly announced his resignation effective at the end of the month. Without being unprecedented, the pope’s gesture is extremely rare in the history of the Catholic Church. The last pope to do so was Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 to put an end to a major schism within the Catholic world.
To understand the significance of the Pope’s gesture, we discussed it with John Thavis. He is a former Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service, the world’s largest and oldest religious news agency. Having reported from the Vatican for about 30 years, John Thavis seems to know the place inside out. His book The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church will be published next week by Viking.
Costica Bradatan: This is such a rare gesture. We can even say “extraordinary.”
John Thavis: It’s especially amazing coming from such a traditionalist pope. In one fell swoop he’s shown that he’s willing to break with one of the church’s oldest traditions, and in doing so redefine the role of the papacy in the modern age.
CB: Certainly popes had health problems before, but they didn’t resign. Somehow they made old age, the frailty and poor health that came with it part of the burden they had to carry. You know intimately the history of the papacy. Why do you think Pope Benedict XVI decided to break with this tradition?
JT: The pope simply felt that he didn’t have the physical strength to carry out the duties of the papacy in the modern age. He has clearly grown frailer in recent months, but I think Benedict probably had this in mind from the beginning of his pontificate. He, along with others in the church, watched Pope John Paul II struggle with illness right up until the end, and I’m sure he felt that was a great witness to the value of suffering. But I’m also sure Pope Benedict saw the dangers of a moribund pope who might linger in office for years. He wanted to break the taboo against resignation, and I think it sets a precedent that will alter the way the church looks at the papacy. For one thing, the cardinals who come together to elect his successor may well look to someone younger, knowing that resignation is an option.
CB: The Catholic Church is going through difficult times. Pope Benedict has had to face challenges from several directions. They were political, social and cultural challenges, from within the church as well as from outside it. His response to these challenges has been staunchly conservative. Is there any way we could read “defeat” into the Pope’s gesture?
JT: I wouldn’t characterize it as defeat, but there’s no doubt Benedict suffered these challenges. His legacy project, the “new evangelization,” is designed to confront the drift away from religion in many parts of the world and to reclaim the church’s place in the public square. The pope spoke openly about his concern that the church is losing this battle, and I’m sure it worried him. At the same time, the sex abuse scandal, including revelations about a great number of cases in Europe, has clearly weighed on this pope. Perhaps one of the...read more