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Pope Benedict XVI resigns and offers one last gift of Church policy

February 11, 2013
Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t speak to the theological implications of Pope Benedict XVI resigning the papacy, but I’m not surprised by his decision to do so. In embracing the past, this pontiff has actually been quite progressive. A papal resignation may be his most forward thinking decision and greatest legacy.

Despite a sound mind, his predecessor Pope John Paul II was in failing health for slightly more than the last decade of his life. It was his decision to continue his papacy in spite of his obvious illnesses, perhaps as a symbol of perseverance. As a symbol, he was a strong pope, but perhaps not universally effective.

Pope Benedict XVI has been less about personal symbolism and more about structure – rules and policy. His papacy brought tweaks to the Church, many to make it more efficient while shepherding it into the new millennia.

This act of resignation is likely his greatest gift of policy, the acceptance of papal resignation in the modern church and the template to do so successfully.

Perhaps only he and his famous discipline could do such a thing. The last papal resignations took place during the great schisms of the Middle Ages, where multiple popes  literally tore the Church apart. For Pope Benedict XVI to successfully resign the chair of Saint Peter, he’ll need to completely remove himself from the position. Resigning is only the start.

Pope Benedict must show in his actions that he completely leaves the office, doing nothing to inspire schism. I believe he alluded to this in his resignation letter – “…I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”

Pope Benedict XVI will have to live a contemplative, perhaps even monastic, life – no audiences, no visitations, no books, no public letters, etc. He must do more, and thus less, than just leave the office of pope.

Ironically, this may be his greatest challenge, not in act but in acceptance by others. This cleric has always possessed an almost cult like following. As the famed Cardinal Ratzinger, I knew more than a few priests who were dedicated to his guidance, of course always within the faith of the universal Church. It is likely there will be those who choose to follow the Pope Benedict XVI even in resignation, as opposed to the new pontiff. This is the real danger of resignation.

However, considering the manner in which he has conducted his life from young man to Church father, I suspect this pope is among the few people who understands that the ramifications of his actions out of office will be just as weighty, possibly more so, than his actions in office.


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