Comment and Features

Was Benedict’s abdication really God’s will?

Benedict XVI walks with a cane after his final general audience in 2013 (CNS)

Was Benedict XVI right to abdicate? While there is no doubt as to the validity of his resignation, was it God’s will? More than three years after the fact, in light of his own recent explanation of his decision, it is not clear that it was the will of the Holy Spirit.

Last Testament, Ratzinger/Benedict’s latest book with Peter Seewald, his interlocutor in three previous interview books, has already been reviewed by our editor Luke Coppen. There is much to recommend it – an excellent gift for Christmas and I expect I will return to it again in these pages. Yet the most important part of the book is Benedict’s explanation of his abdication in February 2013.

At the time of the abdication, Benedict said only that it was his diminishing strength that made it such that he could not continue in office. That left the Catholic world with unresolved questions. First, it was manifestly not true that Benedict lacked either the mental acuity – demonstrated again in this latest book – to be aware of his responsibilities and to make decisions. And, given that all popes always get weaker before they die, his diminished physical strength itself appeared not to be disqualifying either.

Thus it seemed that what had never been done in the history of the Church was not justified. Seewald himself clarifies in his questions that never before had “a genuinely ruling pontiff stood down from his office”. Surely circumstances were not so grave in 2013 to provoke such an innovation?

On the other hand, knowing Benedict’s great humility, his long willingness to serve in offices which he did not welcome – Archbishop of Munich, prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, pope – and his own reverence for the Church’s tradition, it seemed to many, including me, that ifhe did abdicate there had to be good reason for doing so. Yet Benedict himself did not provide a complete contemporaneous account of the decision.

Now in Last Testament he has chosen to do so, answering the questions Seewald puts to him. He makes three main points. First, that he was not pressured to abdicate.

Indeed, he insists that had there been pressure, or some crisis, he would not have been free to abdicate, as it would have been “fleeing from the wolves”, which he resolved not to do in his inaugural homily as pope. He was free to go, he insists, precisely because there was no urgent reason to do so.

Second, his free decision was motivated by his own inner conviction, the maturation of long prayer and reflection, that he no longer had the capacity to continue. After his trip to Mexico and Cuba in 2012, he concluded that he no longer had the strength for such journeys. His doctor told him that he could not make another transatlantic trip. With the World Youth Day (WYD) scheduled for July 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Benedict resolved that as he would be unable to keep that appointment, he must resign to make way for another. And so he did.

With the utmost respect, this explanation, as offered, remains unconvincing. It is not obligatory for the pope to be at WYD. He could appear by video link. He could, one imagines, go on a special plane equipped with a bed and medical equipment. He could have gone for a few days, even a week, ahead of time and recuperated privately, as Benedict himself did for Sydney in 2008. Above all, ifthe Lord had wanted a new pope for WYD 2013, he could have arranged matters, just as in 2005 the question of how the pope would be present at WYD Cologne was resolved by the death of John Paul and the election of Benedict earlier in the year.

In Last Testament, Benedict argues that as he judged himself unable to maintain the current papal schedule, he could not continue as pope. Yet an alteration of the papal schedule would have been a less radical step than changing the pope in office. Less frequent travel, a reduction in papal Masses, general audiences and Angelus appearances could plausibly be a path that Providence was indicating by Benedict’s diminishing strength.

A third reason offered by Benedict was not a motivation for his decision, but a consequence of it. He argues that just as bishops emeriti were once an innovation, so too was a pope emeritus something new, but the Church would see the wisdom of this new possibility and adjust to it. Pope Francis has made the same argument. That though, remains an ex post facto observation. Benedict does not claim that he abdicated because he judged this innovation to be good for the Church.

Last Testament has much to delight Benedict’s admirers – he clearly remains the most learned man in the Church, to say nothing of other world stages. Yet the book leaves me uneasy on the great historical question. Cardinal Ratzinger took the view that the Holy Spirit had a mostly defensive role in the election of popes: a given pope was ipso facto the wi II of God, but rather that the promises of Christ meant that it would not lead to complete ruin. It would seem the same approach is fitting for his own decision to abdicate. That it was taken by a holy man in total sincerity is beyond doubt. That it was God’s will is not demonstrated from Benedict’s own Last Testament.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the December 9, 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here