Why did Pope Benedict XVI resign?
On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign his papal office at the end of the same month. After his resignation and following church law, a conclave was held and a new pope was elected, the Argentinean Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who surprisingly choose the name Francis. Although it is too early to evaluate this new papacy in depth, the least one can say is that the tone and style of the papacy have changed, and quite a bit of enthusiasm has grown, as if the Spirit were set free once again in a church that had gotten used to protecting its borders ad extra and its discipline ad intra.
Indeed, these were the ways of coping with the challenges that seemed to threaten not only the Christian faith as such but also the whole church. During Benedict’s papacy, the “outside world” was perceived to be inimical to the core truths of Christianity, and the church was called on both to protect these truths from misrepresentation and to proclaim them to a world that resisted them. In order to do so, moreover, internal unity and discipline were enforced.
Both strategies, however, progressively seemed to fail: in many countries the church’s public discourse is no longer received, and the emblematic illustration of the internal crisis of the church is the pedophilia scandal, which became apparent in all levels of the church’s hierarchy.
Viewed from a distance, there appears to be a good deal of tragedy in this, a situation that must have caused great distress to and maybe even despair on the part of Pope Benedict. He who wished the church to be not only a beacon of light and truth in a world diagnosed with egoism and relativism, but also the protector of real humanity, instead saw the church undermined from within by the pedophilia crisis, which damaged the church’s credibility in moral and other matters, both inside and outside the church.
Since February 11, 2013, there has been much speculation regarding the reason for the pope’s resignation. Professor Lieven Boeve of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, suggests one reason that is hardly mentioned in this regard: “cognitive dissonance.” The pope indeed had become old and tired, overwhelmed by his inability to manage the Roman Curia and its lobbies and saddened by the moral and financial crises within the church, by incidents such as “Vatileaks,” and so on.
However, at the same time, Boeve notes that should not underestimate the way in which all of this challenged Benedict’s—or rather, Joseph Ratzinger’s—personal theological convictions. As a theologian, a bishop, a prefect, and a pope, Joseph Ratzinger has had a major influence on the way the church has developed over the last fifty years, in matters of faith and morals, in organization, and through episcopal nominations. At the end of his papacy, he may have felt that it just had not worked: his desire for the church to uphold the highest standards of truth and morals over against the modern world of egoism and relativism had resulted in a church ethically crumbling down from within, losing its credibility on the public scene at a steady pace not only in Europe but to a growing degree elsewhere as well. Instituted as a divine reality, the church has proven to be only too human. It has become all the more difficult to argue in a credible way that it is not the church but only its members who are sinful, and thus responsible for the pitiful present state of affairs.
Lieven Boeve’s insightful consideration of the theological and ecclesial program of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI appears in a recently published article from Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society. Explore this and other articles from Horizons here.