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Benedict’s Warning?

Amid the flurry of writing about Pope Benedict’s abdication, this, from the traditionalist Catholic Christopher Ferrara, grabbed my attention: The answer is revealed by an incident of which I was reliably informed during a recent Ignatian retreat at the Retreat House of the Society of Saint Pius X in Ridgefield, Connecticut. During an audience with […]

Amid the flurry of writing about Pope Benedict’s abdication, this, from the traditionalist Catholic Christopher Ferrara, grabbed my attention:

The answer is revealed by an incident of which I was reliably informed during a recent Ignatian retreat at the Retreat House of the Society of Saint Pius X in Ridgefield, Connecticut. During an audience with the Pope, Bishop Fellay found himself alone with the Pope for a moment.  His Excellency seized the opportunity to remind the Pope that he is the Vicar of Christ, possessed of the authority to take immediate measures to end the crisis in the Church on all fronts. The Pope replied thus: “My authority ends at that door.” (Castel Gondolfo August, 2005)

This comes at the end of a reflection about the Pope possibly having lost control over the Curia. It’s not just a traditionalist concern. Today’s New York Times reports that a “constant drumbeat” of bad news regarding intrigue and ungovernability within the Vatican may have worn the frail pope down. Excerpt:

“It wasn’t one thing, but a whole combination of them” that caused him to resign, said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily newspaper Il Foglio. Clerical sex abuse scandals battered the papacy relentlessly, erupting in the United States, Ireland and across Europe, all the way to Australia.

But the most recent, the scandal involving the butler, “was a constant drumbeat on the pope,” he said, hitting close to home — literally where the pope lived. In the end, Mr. Rodari said, the message was, “I can’t change things, so I will erase everything.”

While the pope clearly has been losing strength in recent years, some Vatican experts saw Benedict’s decision less as a sign of frailty than one of strength that sent a clear message — and a challenge — to the Vatican prelates whose misdeeds he had struggled to rein in: No one is irreplaceable, not even the pope.

Even the Vatican acknowledged this. “The pope is someone of great realism,” the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said on Tuesday. “And he knows very well what the problems and the difficulties are.”

Father Lombardi added: “I think this decision sends many messages to all of us, of humility, courage, of wisdom in evaluating one’s situation before God.” The resignation could “open the door for a potential wave of resignations” — including from within the administrative body known as the Curia, Massimo Franco, a political columnist at the Corriere della Sera daily newspaper and an expert in relations between Italy and the Vatican, wrote on Tuesday.

This is the backdrop against which I read a thought-provoking reflection on the possible meaning of Benedict’s resignation, written by Larry Chapp, a Catholic theologian who teaches at DeSales University. It’s a bit long, so I’ve put it below the jump. Well worth your time if you’re interested in the Church and the papacy:

Many students and friends have asked me to explain my thoughts on the resignation of Pope Benedict. And so I would like to summarize what I think may be some of the factors that led him to this.

All of this is sheer speculation on my part, but I do think one thing that is being overlooked in all of this is Benedict’s statement that the reason why the Church needs someone with more physical strength at the helm is because the faith of the Church is facing what he calls a “grave crisis”. I don’t think we should overlook this aspect of his statement since it coincides with a theme he has been emphasizing throughout his papacy. Namely, that the current crisis in the Church is a crisis of “faith”. And the seriousness of this can be seen in the fact that he even went so far as to declare a year of faith. I do not think this is just some pious rambling about the need for faith. An empty devotional gesture.

I think he is saying there is something uniquely dangerous in the current situation of the Church and that unique thing is the de facto apostasy of so many within the Church, up to, and perhaps especially including, many members of the clergy and religious. He has been insistent that so many “issues” in the Church today (including the sex crisis) are the product of a lack of faith among members of the Church. I think it is also this fear of his that has led him to focus on the reform of the liturgy. He has said on numerous occasions that he thinks one of the things that has led to this crisis of faith is a loss of the sense of the liturgy as the “divine liturgy”. He thinks all of the liturgical tinkering has led to a view of the liturgy as something endlessly plastic, horizontal, and man-made. He also therefore sees the constant calls for the Church to change her fundamental apostolic structure and many of her central moral teachings as further evidence of this loss of faith in the divine element of the Church, with too many viewing everything through the lens of power and politics instead. This has thus robbed the Church of the ability to re-evangelize a rapidly secularizing West that is also becoming increasingly aggressive toward the Church and her freedom. Thus, I am afraid he sees huge storm clouds on the horizon – – even perhaps a looming secularist persecution – – that the Church is not prepared to weather since her members are also infected with the bacillus of the same secularism.

There is a very telling interview with Benedict’s brother that came out today where he says that Benedict has done “all he could” and that has led him to this point of resignation. “All he could” for what? A very telling remark I think.

His brother also said that Benedict was deeply disturbed by the “Vatileaks” scandal last year. He did not elaborate on that, but my guess is that beyond the sense of personal betrayal he must have felt, there was also probably a sinking feeling that if he could not even control the curia, how could he possibly lead a reform of the Church at large? In short, his phrase in 2005 that we now face a “dictatorship of relativism” could damn well have been the motto for his papacy and he set himself to combat this only to find that the secularizing forces in the Church were just too entrenched.

I think all of these factors, when coupled with his sense of impending death and failing health, led him to the conclusion that a lame duck papacy with an incapacitated and sick Pope would be a disaster that would only increase the problems for his successor. Thus his resignation is a great act of charity toward his successor insofar as he does not want to leave that man an even bigger mess than the one we now have. Thus, I guess what I am saying is that we need to take everything he has been saying on all of these issues for the past 8
years with much more seriousness than we have and realize that he freaking meant it. We face huge and worrisome obstacles ahead. And they represent a unique danger in the history of the Church. A danger equal to, if not surpassing, the dangers we faced in the first centuries of the Church as she struggled to define her identity in the face of powerful imperial and hellenizing pagan forces.

Finally, do not think for a second that he is unaware of how radical a gesture this is and how unprecedented it is in the modern papacy. Do not think for a second that he is unaware of the potential problems such a new precedent can cause for future popes who now may face pressure to resign as well if the attitude mounts that a pope is “failing” in his mission. And so knowing that he is aware of all of that, we must affirm as true that he did this, as he said, only after deep, deep reflection and for very serious reasons. And I think those
serious reasons are the ones I have outlined.

I can only conclude, therefore, with an act of the most profound admiration for, and amazement at, the sheer holiness of this man and his profound faith. A man singularly dispossessed of any sense of ego or what his “legacy” might be. A true man of the Church who now does this gut-wrenching thing out of love for Christ.

And as Lent begins this year in the shadow of this great man and his supreme act of charity, I would ask that we all pray for him and for the Cardinal electors to be as bold and wise in their choice of a successor, as he has been as Pope.

What a gift of God this man has been to the Church. May we all honor him now by committing ourselves ever more to Jesus the Christ, whose humble servant in the vineyard he has been.



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