The Times has an interesting report on the theological problems caused by Pope Benedict’s retirement. Strictly speaking, infallibility is preserved, because it is a quality believed to be part of the papal office, and not the person of the pope. But there’s more unsettling resonance to the resignation than I had initially thought. Excerpt:

Before his decision, Benedict might have been remembered as a passive pope, a theologian who helped shape the doctrine of his beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II, but whose own reign was marred by scandal. In stepping down, scholars say, his last act became his most revolutionary, making history and perhaps opening the door to a new era.

“The mere fact that he’s resigning has permanently changed the nature of the papacy,” said Eamon Duffy, a historian of Christianity at Cambridge University. “He’s thought the unthinkable, done the undoable. He’s broken a taboo that had last 600 years, the last 150 of which presented the pope as a religious icon, the emblem of Jesus Christ, not the leader of a global church.”

Rowan Williams, a theologian who was archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 until 2012 and is now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, said that Benedict’s resignation meant that “the pope is not like a sort of God-king who goes on to the very end.”

It was a statement that “the ministry of service that the bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service and it’s therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand,” he told Vatican Radio, adding that the pope had made the role “slightly more functional, slightly less theologically top-heavy.”

That the supreme pontiff can pass authority to his successor at retirement rather than death inevitably introduces more ambiguity to the authority of church doctrine, some scholars say, since it calls into question the authority of the pontiff who promulgated that doctrine. “Benedict actually by resigning has introduced some cracks into that infallibility. It’s bound to relativize doctrine,” Mr. MacCullough said.

Joseph Bottum is thinking along the same lines. From his Weekly Standard essay:

Perhaps no one could have done better than Benedict has with the looming problems that John Paul II managed to keep temporarily in the wings during the grand drama that was his pontificate. Still, the fact remains that Benedict has not done well with them—and perhaps mostly because he was never a good administrator. He was always a serious and absorbed theologian, and his advanced age is not the cause of his incapacity.

And yet, John Paul II also reminded us that running the Vatican isn’t the sole or even the most important job of the pope. Being a teacher, a living example of holiness, remains at the center. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering,” Benedict writes, but his resignation takes from the world stage that picture of a whole life, a rounded image of human existence with a shape and a goal.

After this, how will any of his successors feel able to do what John Paul II did, failing physically in the full view of the public—preaching one last homily with his death? Benedict speaks of the unique pressures of “today’s world,” which he insists require a younger man’s strength of mind and body. But today’s world is unique only because we say it is. Human life remains as it was, our aging and our deaths what they always were.

In other words, the modern world doesn’t really need to see in the pope a model of competent administration, nice as that would be. It does need, however, a public reminder that we are not incapacitated as human beings when we age and prepare to die. We are not to be tucked away or compelled by moral pressure to remove our lives and deaths from public view. The older vision of life is the more complete one, and in today’s world, perhaps uniquely, we are in special need of remembering that.

Besides, there remains the problem of political theory that the aftermath of San Celestino’s abdication taught us. If popes can resign, then popes can be forced to resign, notwithstanding the fact that the church believes they are chosen with guidance from the Holy Spirit. And after they resign, what then? What are we to do with them? The sheer presence of a retired pope in a Vatican monastery may prove a burden and distraction for his successor. And if, with Benedict in 2013, a retired pope does not seem to pose a direct political threat, that hardly insures that no future retired pope will prove so. The political portions are part of the pope’s job, too.

That’s something, one suspects, that the ascetic monk Peter of Morrone didn’t grasp while serving as Pope Celestine V, saint though he was. It’s something that Joseph Ratzinger seems to have ignored as Pope Benedict XVI, saint though he too may be.