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Benedict’s Warning?

Amid the flurry of writing about Pope Benedict’s abdication, this, from the traditionalist Catholic Christopher Ferrara [1], 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 [2]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 [3], 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.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Benedict’s Warning?"

#1 Comment By Opinion Pole On February 13, 2013 @ 10:38 am

The next pope has a unique opportunity to speak with his predecessor instead of only those left in power after the former pope’s death.

I must say I admire Benedict, he has handled the world’s most difficult job with grace and dignity.

#2 Comment By Anglican On February 13, 2013 @ 10:40 am

I got the chills reading that. Very rough waters are ahead. I think more than likely Larry Capp is correct. May those entrusted with finding his successor do well in picking a worthy successor.

#3 Comment By Josh McGee On February 13, 2013 @ 10:40 am

Yes, Larry Chapp is hitting on what I think is the heart of this issue. I don’t think Benedict was thinking about setting a new precedent nearly as much as he was thinking about the health and survival of the church. Here is how I put it yesterday:

Now, the tension or suspense of this episode arises because Benedict, being a scholar, understands the gravity of his decision. Yet, he still made it. He indicates that he made it due to the nature of today’s world. Christians everywhere have lamented the decline of the faith, the decline in the number of people who are daily trying to walk in the Way, or at least crawl in the Way (perhaps a better description of me). If you are one of those lamenting and you have wondered if perhaps it is just your perception that is askew, know that yesterday a pope believed the world is being shaken so severely that it justified an action no pope has taken in almost 600 years. Your perception, it seems, is not askew.

One can trace the history of this decline back to certain momentous events and then even to momentous events before that, and again before even that. I, for one, am beginning to believe the death blow, or the doom, of Western Christendom was the two World Wars fought a mere generation apart, what Pat Buchanan has referred to as the Civil War of the West. It is becoming hard for me to believe that any civilization can brutally bomb and shoot and kill millions upon millions of its own and still retain its Christian character. However, it is also easy to see that many events preceding that and flowing from that also played a part, perhaps as least as important, if not as visible. And today we know that the Sexual Revolution in all its forms is doing its best to strangle any remaining life from the church in the West.

The future of Christianity in this world is uncertain, as uncertain as it has been for many, many centuries. How uncertain is the future of Christianity? So uncertain that for the first time in the centuries following the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics seem to be looking anywhere and everywhere – including to each other – for anyone holding to an orthodox view of the faith, of the history, of the mercy, and of the ethical framework standing opposed to what Benedict calls ‘the dictatorship of relativism.’ For those of us still meandering around down here, this moment in history reveals what is our personal test: do we become weak-kneed and yellow-bellied and go the way of the world, or do we continue clawing and scratching our way up the hill, knowing with Abraham that the Lord will provide? We shall esteem those who have lived and now suffer, but here we are, it is our time to put on the full armor of God, to find the best five stones for slaying Goliath, or to merely stand back and watch as the enemies of God mock everything holy day after day. It does seem then, slaying Goliath is a young man’s game. In that, Pope Benedict XVI may have a point.

#4 Comment By James C. On February 13, 2013 @ 10:52 am

Chapp is right. In some sense, the Church has been been suffering under a Babylonian Captivity, and Benedict must have confidence that a younger successor will be picked with the strength to lead the Church out of it.

#5 Comment By Traddy Catholic in Cleveland On February 13, 2013 @ 11:15 am

Rod, thank you for linking to the Remnant.

I have a friend who is good and Holy priest. He exemplifies the virtues of humility, prudence and restraint. He combines a total devotion to the needs of the inner-city poor with the pastoral demands of a mainly Tridentine congregation. He is gentle and obedient to the Magisterium.

He suprised me once by—uncharacteristically—asking me rhetorically: do you seriously believe that most of the Bishops in this country genuflect at the tabernacle when no one is there to see them?

I had never considered the question. But, upon reflection, I seriously doubt the number is more than 25 or 30%.

#6 Comment By The Wet One On February 13, 2013 @ 11:27 am


More handwringing.

I like it! Good stuff! I dig existential crises. Will the Church fail to survive? An excellent question. I shall continue to watch while my breath remains.

However, as with all things, this too shall pass. I just don’t think that the Church will pass anytime soon, but who knows? Nothing here in the real world was ever ever slated to last forever. That is the way of things.

#7 Comment By EricRead On February 13, 2013 @ 11:41 am

“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”

Isn’t it tiring to blame secularism for the problems of the church? It’s not secularism that caused the sex scandals.

#8 Comment By premodern hybrid On February 13, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

I would hope that Christians, and specifically Catholic Christians have a more steadfast view of their faith and its ability to weather its current challenges, real as they are.

Do you really think that now is more striking than during the crisis of Arianism? Or during the schism of Avignon? Or for that matter of early Christianity being persecuted by Roman authorities?

Perhaps what some Jewish thinkers have said about Jewish identity will become true of Christianity: that if you’re ostracized somewhat, you’ll end up taking your identity and faith more seriously; whereas when you’re just comfortable, your faith and identity merge indistinguishably into that of the majority.

#9 Comment By Nick K. On February 13, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

If there is so much anarchy and poor discipline within the Curia, and so much de facto apostasy within the Church’s higher ranks, as Chapp suggests, then how can we be hopeful that the cardinals will chose a successor who will reign in their own derelict behavior and right an organization that is being (perhaps) intentionally led astray by its own upper-echelon leadership?

Isn’t Chapp is really raising the question of whether or not a pope with integrity and reforming will can even be elected, or if the electors will chose a patsy who will leave the progressive, degenerative, whatever, elements of the Church’s leadership to their own devices.

#10 Comment By R Hampton On February 13, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

Strange that I find this explanation for his resignation more comforting than mental infirmity – I guess I would prefer his move to come from strength rather than weakness.

#11 Comment By Rick On February 13, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

I’m praying that our problematic Bishops and priests take a similar route: voluntarily entering a monastery to live a life of conversion and prayer. Maybe Cardinals Mahony and Law (and few others?) will join the Pope in the Vatican Monastery–but I wouldn’t want to wish that on the Pope. I think he’s a very holy man.

#12 Comment By Derek Leaberry On February 13, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

Anyone interested in the decline of the Catholic church since Vatican Two ought to buy the interviews of Father Malachi Martin which can be purchased from Triumph Communications of Toronto. Fascinating stuff.

#13 Comment By Pete S On February 13, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

After reflection for a couple of days my respect for the Pope’s decision has increased. If he truly believes that changes need to come at the top a stronger man will definitely by required. I hope he was correct when he changed the voting requirement for the new pope to be 2/3. I suspect this was a prelude to retiring and hoping that the higher requirement would prevent the people he thinks are leading the church astray from getting their man elected.

#14 Comment By J On February 13, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

Isn’t it tiring to blame secularism for the problems of the church? It’s not secularism that caused the sex scandals.

But if adherents admit that it’s an institution of and deliberately selfdelimiting to the Agrarian Age condition, the game’s over. Better to deny this and pretend an evil outside force is at work.

#15 Comment By Church Lady On February 13, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

I have to admit to not much understanding how the Catholic Church and the Vatican actually work. Like most outsiders, I would assume the Pontiff has some sort of absolute power, and can just insist that everyone go along. In reality, as in most such situations, there’s all kinds of people with all kinds of powers who have to be persuaded to go along with him. If the Pope fails to persuade these people, I’m gathering he can’t do what he wants to. Unless he just replaces everyone with yes men. But that would upset the whole tradition as well, and leave the Pope in a very exposed position. So much for the notion that he’s the “Vicar of Christ”. I don’t think Jesus would actually operate in such a manner. He’d just as soon disband the whole operation, and go it alone, with whatever small band of followers he come find. As he actually did.

#16 Comment By SubmitToTheTrueOne On February 13, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

Time to trade up

” Glory be to Allah; Praise be to Allah; there is no god but Allah; and Allah is most great, is dearer to me than everything on which the sun rises.”

None of this Western nonsense of studying books to try contort your mind to accept a trinity that which is really one…

#17 Comment By CatherineNY On February 13, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

“What a gift of God this man has been to the Church.” Amen, and may God bless him!

#18 Comment By Paul Emmons On February 13, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

Not even an infallible pope can unsay the presumably infallible sayings of his predecessors, lest the whole house of cards come crashing down. In the reign of Paul VI, A papal commission to discern the morality of birth control recommended that it was not sinful. But Pius XI had suggested otherwise, and Paul did not dare to make a pronouncement that might indirectly cast doubt on his authority to make a pronouncements. Hence Humanae Vitae.

I’m sure that there are faithful and unfaithful people on both sides of the clerical collar; but particularly given the peculiar conditions under which the hierarchy has functioned ever since Pius IX, upon losing his temporal power, awarded himself the consolation prize of infallibility, I see no reason to assume that when bishops disagree with the laity, it is the laity who are mistaken and faithless.

#19 Comment By EngineerScotty On February 13, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

But Pius XI had suggested otherwise, and Paul did not dare to make a pronouncement that might indirectly cast doubt on his authority to make a pronouncements. Hence Humanae Vitae.

Too bad popes are not heralded as prophets–in that way, if you change your mind, you can simply attribute it to a new revelation from God. No need to explain further. 🙂

#20 Comment By David J. White On February 13, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

So much for the notion that he’s the “Vicar of Christ”. I don’t think Jesus would actually operate in such a manner. He’d just as soon disband the whole operation, and go it alone, with whatever small band of followers he come find. As he actually did.

“As he actually did”? So, when Jesus’ followers proved weak, timorous, faithless, and treacherous, he dumped them and started all over? You must have different Gospels in your New Tesatment than I do.

#21 Comment By Josh McGee On February 13, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

Church Lady,

Christ did not see himself as disbanding the whole operation. He saw himself as fulfilling it. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There is nothing in the gospels to indicate that Christ shared our modern, “I want what I want and I want it now mentality.”

#22 Comment By Church Lady On February 13, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

“As he actually did”? So, when Jesus’ followers proved weak, timorous, faithless, and treacherous, he dumped them and started all over? You must have different Gospels in your New Tesatment than I do.

I’m referring to the fact that Jesus was a practicing Jew, not a “Christian”. He lived and taught within the framework of Judaism, and when he found the Judaic priests and authorities of his day lacking, he struck out on his own, not trying to “work within the system”. His approach was to find people who were in near complete agreement with him, and to work to strengthen them, without tolerating those who were opposed to him. “You are either with me, or you are against me”, was his motto.

If he had gotten the response from his disciples that Benedict seems to have gotten from the Vatican, I’m sure he would have left them in the dust also and found ones more in alignment with him. But of course, he wasn’t in the business of creating an ecclesiastical bureaucracy in the first place, but just finding people he could actually work with in spreading his Gospel. What has emerged over the centuries is probably not something he could have forseen, from his modest beginnings.

#23 Comment By Church Lady On February 13, 2013 @ 5:43 pm


Christ did not see himself as disbanding the whole operation. He saw himself as fulfilling it.

And I’m not suggesting that the Pope abandon the entire operation (though that’s an option). I’m just suggesting that a genuine Vicar of Christ would have people around him who were working with him, and not against him. And that he would actively separate the wheat from the chaff.

Though you do have the example of Judas, I don’t think we really want to imagine that the Vatican should be full of Judas’s who are actively working against its goals, and trying to undermine and destroy its work.

#24 Comment By Clint On February 13, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

Vatileaks :

Trial of Paolo Gabriele

“Paolo Gabriele was indicted by Vatican magistrates on 13 August 2012 for aggravated theft. The first hearing of the trial of Paolo Gabriele and Claudio Sciarpelletti took place on 29 September 2012.

Gabriele’s trial began on 2 October 2012. He claimed to have stolen the documents to fight “evil and corruption” and put the Vatican “back on track”. Multiple evaluations of Gabriele’s mental health provided conflicting results: concluding in one report that, Gabriele suffered from a “fragile personality with paranoid tendencies covering profound personal insecurity”; yet another report found that Gabriele showed no adequate signs of a major psychological disorder nor posing any serious threat to himself or others. Vatican police seized encrypted documents and confidential papers that the Pope had marked “to be destroyed” when they raided the apartment of his butler the court heard.

On 6 October, Paolo Gabriele was found to be guilty of theft, and was sentenced to a reduced sentence of 18 months in an Italian prison. Gabriele was also ordered to pay legal expenses. As of October 26, 2012, he was serving his sentence in the Vatican itself but, Gabriele was pardoned by Benedict XVI on 22 December 2012.”

#25 Comment By Kirt Higdon On February 13, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

What chutzpah for renegade Bishop Fellay of the SSPX to be reminding Pope Benedict to just exercise his papal authority. The entire SSPX has been ignoring that authority for decades. Seems like a lot of folk are either despairing or hoping that this is the beginning of the end for the Catholic Church. Maybe In Trade can open up a line of betting odds on the date by which the Church will cease to exist. There seem to be a lot of suckers willing to bet against the Church and I suspect there are some shrewd Pascal-type gamblers ready to cover those bets.

#26 Comment By Rick On February 13, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

The Church has never infallibly declared that artificial birth control is forbidden. There have been only two or three declarations that are considered infallible: the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Assumption of Mary, and some say John Paul II’s declaration that women cannot be ordained priests. Even if Pope Paul VI had stated that artificial birth control is okay, no infallible teaching would have been affected.

#27 Comment By thomas tucker On February 14, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

Dear Rick, please read and learn about the Ordinary Magisterium and the Extraordinary Magisterium.
Dear Paul, there was much more involved than what you have chosen to discuss, and if you read Humamae vitae, you will know that the Holy Father’s predictions for what would happen as artifical contraception became widespread were quite accurate. The bottom line is that he did not promulgate H. vitae simply because a former Pope had taught it.
As for this article, it sure makes a lot of sense. I think Benedict is wise in understanding that a younger, more enrgetic Pope is needed at this point to confront the challenges.

#28 Comment By Anne On February 14, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

Regarding Larry Capp’s remarks, I feel the need to point out that Vatican II was itself the Church’s response to Europe’s long-recognized crisis of faith, which came after two world wars and the unprecedented attack on theodicy presented by the Holocaust. That crisis may have begun with the Enlightenment, but 20th-century history certainly added to the momentum. In other words, moderns have been and continue losing their faith in great numbers, as Pope Benedict of all people knows only too well. In fact, his and the papacy of John Paul II can, in turn, be seen as a conservative or traditionalist response to the response of Vatican II. Perhaps now, instead of yet more calls to faith and denunciations of the world Vatican II sought to open the Church to embrace, we need a movement of integration, again opening humbly to the world and telling it, and ourselves, the truth without recrimination.