For myself and my fellow Catholics, these are interesting days in the history of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI has abdicated, something which hasn’t been seen for over 600 years. The first pope to resign was St. Celestine V. St. Celestine V was originally a hermit, living a monastic life. During the conclave of 1294, he was chosen as Pope. It was a very difficult adjustment for one who sought to live a life devoted to contemplation and a monastic way of life. As Pope, St. Celestine issued a document affirming the possibility of the Pope to resign. He resigned a few months later and promptly returned to his way of life. While Pope Benedict XVI was never a monk, he does hold the monastic way of life in great esteem. As Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI stated in the speech announcing his resignation, after a long period of prayer and meditation, he felt that the Church needed the guidance of a younger man. He is, after all, 86 years old. He stated in that speech:
“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Catholic bishops must submit their resignations at age 75 as specified under Canon 401 §1 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The Code of Canon Law is the law which governs the Catholic Church. Sometimes a bishop will stay on after age 75. Some often stay on until age 80, though 80 seems to be the definite cut-off point. Under the canons and other legislation governing papal elections, cardinals aged 80 and over do not have a vote in the conclave. However, when it comes to papal abdications, there are some other provisions in the law. The Pope’s role is different from that of the cardinals and bishops. Unlike the cardinals and bishops, he possesses “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely”. So, if the Pope decides to abdicate, there is no one to send the resignation to. What has to happen, under Canon 332 § 2 is that the Pope has to make the resignation freely and that it is manifested, but it is not accepted by anyone. There’s no one higher for him to submit his resignation to.
I was thrilled when Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI was chosen. He was a giant among theologians. During the Second Vatican Council which lasted from 1963 to 1965, so many great theologians took part as periti, or experts advising the bishops. Among them were the great Jesuit theologians Henri Cardinal de Lubac, John Courtney Murray and Karl Rahner. Other great theologians were there, too. Among them was a young German theology professor by the name of Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. There were also a number of theologians who would become famous for later being dissenters, such as Hans Küng and Eduard Schillebeeckx. During the same council, interventions were made by a young Polish bishop, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who would go on to become Pope John Paul II. With his abdication, we have the last of the Council periti leaving active ministry. As far as Council fathers go, those bishops who attended the council, there aren’t many left. One of them, Bishop William McNaughton, M.M. served for many years as the Bishop of Incheon, South Korea. Bishop McNaughton is still around and in good health.
He has had an unfair reputation. For a long period of his ministry, he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This congregation is concerned with maintaining correct teaching. As such, he had to deal with theologians whose theological opinions differed considerably from that of the Magisterium. With changes to Canon Law under Blessed John Paul II, the Congregation also assumed jurisdiction over cases of priests who have sexually abused the young. Then Cardinal Ratzinger has long been painted as a demagogue by some of the liberal parts of the Church. I think, though, that when he became Pope and people began to see what he is like, a lot of people’s opinions changed. Of course, not everybody’s opinions have changed and for some they probably never will.
While I am actually sad to see him go, I have every confidence that he has considered this step extremely carefully. For now, the cardinals are beginning to prepare for the conclave where, presumably next week, a Pope will be elected. It will be an interesting time having a current Pope and a retired Pope living in the Vatican in the same time. Because this is a situation the Church hasn’t confronted in over 600 years, it puts us in an interesting situation. We have been extraordinarily fortunate in the popes we have had in the 20th and 21st centuries. As for our Pope-emeritus, I wish him a blessed retirement. In his last speech as Pope, which he made at Castel Gandolfo, he said: ” I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.” I am grateful for the eight years we had of him, as a pilgrim guiding the Pilgrim Church.