A Radical Move by a Conservative Pope

By Costica BradatanFebruary 18, 2013

A Radical Move by a Conservative Pope

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 biggest disappointments for Pope Benedict is that his carefully crafted talks, homilies, and documents, which have focused primarily on the fundamental elements of faith in Christ, have had trouble breaking through the media filter. Scandals and miscues have dominated media coverage of this pope, and that’s got to be disheartening. I should point out, however, that Vatican officials were quick to dismiss any talk of a “defeated” pope, and said his resignation coincided with a period of relative calm for the church.

CB: Pope Benedict has had a consistently conservative agenda on a whole range of issues. Ironically enough, his final gesture — this resignation — may be one of remarkable modernity. For in his resignation statement he says: “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” This seems to imply a novel understanding of what papacy is about. He appears to suggest that papacy should not be so much about the past, as about the future. The pope, rather than a nominal successor of Saint Peter, should be primarily an effective leader of the Church, someone who has to act in an efficient manner and make sure that his authority is always manifest. Therefore, when old age becomes an impediment to his leadership, he may need to step down, especially if the Church is having problems and is in need of a strong leader. Coming from such a conservative pope, I find this — how shall I put it? — “managerial” vision of the role of papacy quite revolutionary. With so strong an emphasis on human agency, it is as though there is almost no place left for God’s intervention in the unfolding of history. What do you think?  

JT: I personally consider this a very courageous decision, and I think it does reveal a new understanding of the papacy. Benedict is a realist, and I think he made a sober assessment of the burden of the papacy and his own physical strength. He said he prayed over this decision — but a prayer cannot be a demand that God keep him healthy. It was interesting that in explaining his decision, the pope in effect said that the “job description” for a pope had changed in today’s world — it’s a job that now requires tremendous energy. So here is a pope who is resigning not from his deathbed, or even because of a specific illness (if what the Vatican says is true), but because he recognizes that he’s simply too old and frail. And in doing so, he’s saying the papacy is not a static institution that never changes, but one that can and should adapt to the times.

CB: Benedict’s sudden resignation is uncannily reminiscent of Nanni Moretti’s 2011 film, Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), about a reluctant pope who literally flees the office. Mutatis mutandis, to speak in the language of the place, do we have a case of reality copying fiction here?

JT: Moretti’s film treats the fictional story of a pope who experienced deep doubts about his abilities immediately after a conclave. I don’t think Benedict had a sudden change of heart, but a slowly maturing realization that the papacy brings an enormous burden, in terms of private meetings, governance, speeches, and public appearances. The film depicts a pope who goes missing for a while, who literally runs away from the papal throne. This of course is not Benedict’s way. He seems to be preparing to live inside the Vatican but in a monastic setting, and I would expect that he’ll keep the lowest of profiles and do everything possible for an untraumatic transition.

CB: What will be the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI?

JT: Certainly he’ll be remembered as the pope who resigned, and who made it a reasonable expectation that future popes might resign. Benedict is making it possible for the church to look at the papacy in a new way — not just as a role for elderly churchmen who reign until death, but as an office for younger leaders who may choose to resign even before they reach their 80s. This could be his real gift to the church. Benedict will also be remembered by many Catholics as a great teacher of the faith, one who put a new focus on essential church teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the eyes of the wider world, I think he’ll be remembered as a pope who struggled to govern a church in the face of scandals and difficult moments. 

CB: Where do we go from here?

JT: Cardinals around the world are receiving instructions about when to proceed to Rome. The church will enter into an “interregnum” period after the pope resigns Feb. 28, and by church law a conclave must begin within 20 days. Even though a papal funeral will not need to be celebrated this time around, the cardinals may choose not to rush into a conclave, and to use most of the interregnum period for meetings and conversations. The 117 voting-age cardinals do not know each other all that well, and many of them have worn the red hat for only a year or so. These encounters are by no stretch comparable to political conventions, but there is give-and-take about the direction of the church and the priorities that need to be tackled by the next pope. The great difference, of course, is that this time the former pope will still be alive — not participating directly in the conclave proceedings, but no doubt following from a distance.

CB: What are the chances we will have a non-European pope this time? 

JT: There’s always speculation about a pope from Africa or Asia or Latin America, and some interesting names are popping up this time. There was similar speculation in 2005, but in the end the cardinals voted for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in part because he was a man they knew well and trusted completely. His service at the Vatican made him well known to virtually everyone in the conclave, and this kind of recognition is something that cardinals living in the Third World generally don’t have as they enter a conclave.


LARB Contributor

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University in the United States and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, paperback, 2018) and In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (Harvard University Press, 2023). His work has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Dutch, Italian, Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Farsi. Bradatan also writes book reviews, essays, and op-ed pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, Aeon, The New Statesman, and other similar venues.


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