A modern move by traditional pope

Pope Benedict XVI greeting the faithful at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican last week at the end of Ash Wednesday Mass, his last public liturgy as pontiff.
Pope Benedict XVI greeting the faithful at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican last week at the end of Ash Wednesday Mass, his last public liturgy as pontiff. (GREGORIO BORGIA / AP)

In stepping aside, Benedict affirms an idea that the papacy and the man in it are separable.

Posted: February 17, 2013

Joseph Curran

is an associate professor and the chair of

the Department of Religious Studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

Benedict XVI began his papacy with a reputation for being very conservative, and he has done little since to call that into question. But in announcing last week that he would resign from office, this traditional pope did one of the most modern things he could do - and, in doing so, has perhaps changed the way the Catholic Church thinks of its leader.

As head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition), Benedict - then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - was charged with guarding orthodox Catholic teaching and occasionally silencing those who deviated from it. As pope, he returned to the use of more traditional vestments, presided over a gradual reversion to a more traditional liturgy, and spoke strongly against modern relativism and secularism. He also strengthened and promoted traditional church teachings on marriage and other subjects. He did not seem like an innovator, and no one really expected him to be.

Yet this most traditional man of the church has surprised us with a very modern innovation: the idea that the office of the papacy and the man who holds that office are separate and separable.

Paul VI and John Paul II held the office until their lives ended, through illness and debilitation, each leaving the church rudderless in the final years of his pontificate. Benedict has avoided that, giving witness to spiritual freedom and generosity by laying down an office that he could have held on to. In his awareness of the demands of the modern papacy, and his difficulty in meeting them, he has also shown great humility and simple good judgment.

But perhaps lost in our surprise at this decision is the fundamental insight at the heart of it: that the papacy is an office exercised by a man for the good of the church. When that man can no longer exercise that office for whatever reason, he should lay it aside and let someone else who can do so take it up.

This is a very modern idea. It is reminiscent of U.S. presidents, who retain no legal power when they leave office. Honor and respect are accorded to those who have served in the office, but upon leaving it, they become simple citizens once again.

The pope teaches with authority only because he is the Bishop of Rome. Once he no longer holds that office, he is simply one of many bishops in the Catholic Church. This idea is so striking and new that no one knows what a former pope should wear or how he should be addressed. By simply being the first ex-pope in more than 600 years, Benedict will be a living lesson in humility and the separation of power and person.

Some have suggested that Benedict's legacy to the church will be his well-received books on the life of Jesus or his theologically profound encyclicals. I believe his lasting legacy may be in the way he left office, with humility and grace. He showed us that the papacy is an office held by a man, a servant of the servants of God, and one who serves as long as he can and then steps aside when he can serve no longer.

Joseph Curran can be reached at jcurran@misericordia.edu.

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