How, during the lifetime of a pope, can his successor gain the authority he needs? We are in a time of uncertainty: but we are also in God’s hands

Pope Benedict XVI waves after giving an address about Vatican II to clergy in Rome (Photo: PA)

The reaction of most Catholics to the Holy Father’s decision to abdicate at the end of the month has been largely supportive. Even those of us who wish he hadn’t done it have tried to accept his retirement as being the best thing that could have happened. Loyal Catholics are in the habit of accepting and being guided by the pope’s decisions, after all. But I am beginning to detect another current of opinion, one with which I have to admit I am not entirely out of sympathy. Don’t mistake me. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this decision really is in the best interests of the Church. Pope Benedict knows more than we do what he is capable of; and more to the point, perhaps, what the other factors are that he is taking into consideration.

But among loyal Catholics there is another reaction, of which we ought perhaps to take cognisance, since it may be a part of our own feelings that should be confronted if we are really to come to terms with the reality: the reality that we are now in the final days of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. It is this: the sense that for a Pope to resign is unthinkable: and that he shouldn’t, therefore, have done it. I myself wrote a blog last year (of which I have been reminded by crowing Anglicans) explaining why it couldn’t happen: these jubilant Anglicans have demanded that I return to the subject to explain myself (what they want is a grovel, which they’re not going to get): of that, more presently. But some quite moderate Catholics are beginning to question what the pope has done. Charles Moore, in the Spectator, puts it quite quietly: “Pope Benedict is stepping down for conscientious reasons about which he will have thought deeply. But I still fear that his decision is a mistake… The orthodoxy has grown up that the long physical decline of Pope John Paul II was a disaster which should not be repeated. This is not so… The papacy is a sacred office, and the idea that its holder gives himself to it for life, despite whatever suffering it may entail, is an inspiring one. John Paul bore moving witness to this.”

Certainly, I argued myself last year that the idea that the holder of the office of pope gives himself to it for life is indeed an inspiring one: and there can be little doubt, therefore, that there has been in that sense a loss. The question has to be this: now a modern pope has resigned, will resignation become habitual, even normal? The decision of the pope soon to be elected will perhaps be decisive: and I for one hope that he dies in office (unless he is very old I will not live to see it, whatever he does).

Charles Moore’s reaction must have been shared by many. But there has been a more violent one; and I wonder how common it is. “I am angry about what’s happened,” says the blogger A Reluctant Sinner, “ – very upset. I also feel let down by the Pope, and fear that his ‘resignation’ will prove to be the gravest threat to the Papacy since it was established by Our Lord nearly 2,000 years ago.” He goes on to ask “why has Pope Benedict XVI abandoned the flock which the Holy Spirit entrusted into his care? What is the grave reason behind his decision? … He, as a man, isn’t particularly severely impeded – he can’t be that weak … if he spent an hour yesterday making off-the-cuff, and highly intelligent, if not demob happy, remarks to the clergy of Rome! From what I have read and seen, he seems lucid; and, although physically frail, he is able to get about and perform certain functions (including Wednesday’s Mass in St Peter’s).

“Even if he couldn’t move much or was gravely ill, or whatever, I firmly believe that the / a pope doesn’t have to be a celebrity, travelling from one global function to the next – there is nothing wrong with just being the Successor of Peter; unseen, rarely seen, or hidden away and allowing others to do all the work. This is what most popes have done over the centuries.”

Last year, I argued that if Pope John Paul “had been an Archbishop of Canterbury … he would, of course, have retired 20 years before, in time for a final career, maybe as an academic, perhaps back at the Jagiellonian University — just as Rowan Williams is to end up at Cambridge. It does, in a way, explain why no Anglican archbishop can ever have the kind of spiritual authority for Anglicans that a Pope has for Catholics: the fact is that in accepting the crown of thorns that is papal office, the Successor of Peter gives himself absolutely and irreversibly: there is no escape, no possibility of a peaceful retirement; it is — or would be without the strength that only God can give — a truly fearsome prospect.”

Well, I was wrong about the possibility of a peaceful retirement. Pope Benedict’s, however, isn’t going to be like Rowan Williams’s or George Carey’s. He won’t be responding to journalists’ questions, or sounding off about this or that (as we can confidently expect Rowan Williams to do). He will live a cloistered life: he will simply disappear from view: and his life will be just as deeply consecrated to God by his original election to papal office as it was before, but in a quite different way: he will become, as A Reluctant Sinner suggests, what he could have been anyway – “unseen, rarely seen, or hidden away and allowing others to do all the work”.

Except for one thing: the person doing all the work will be his successor. And the question I then asked has yet to be answered by events. “You simply can’t have retired popes around,” I went on to say: “For how, during the lifetime of an ex-pope, would his successor ever gain the kind of authority a pope needs to have?”

That’s the big question. The fact is that there’s no way the present Holy Father can ever cease to be Benedict XVI. His pontificate is a historical fact: and he will still embody it. Will he overshadow his successor? In a way it’s a meaningless question. Even if he had died instead of resigning, it could still be asked. There are those after all (though not I) who insist that his own pontificate was overshadowed by that of Pope John Paul.

Has the papacy been weakened, as I said it would be? We simply cannot say: In St Paul’s words, “God knows; not I”. And we are all in His hands, as are both Pope Benedict and the man destined to be his successor. Above all, we must not allow ourselves to be overmastered by grief or anger, as some may presently be doing. This is an uncertain time: but uncertainty, if we go into it sustained by God, may lead us, in the end, into a greater certainty and a more glorious outcome.