On this day, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, last year, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation as pope. The act set off the whirlwind year that followed and remains the most significant redefinition of the papacy in decades. No less important has been the way the pope emeritus has conducted himself since.
I believe David Schindler was the first person I heard who hit the nail on the head in assessing Benedict's decision: He called it an act of "great spiritual freedom." Most of my friends on the left and, indeed, the popular opinion of the day, would not associate the word "freedom" with Joseph Ratzinger. But spiritual freedom is not like other varieties of freedom, at least not for the Christian. For us, spiritual freedom is achieved only by becoming slaves to the Gospel. We bind ourselves -- religare, to bind -- to our religion and therein discover a freedom we could not have even been aware of if left to our own devices. At the heart of Christian freedom is radical obedience. It goes without saying that this is not how the world understands freedom today.
The Providence of God is a difficult thing to get one's head around. We all experience events that we interpret as theophanies, manifestations of God's presence. But we humans are a willful breed. How many times do we ask God for what we want, rather than surrendering ourselves to embrace what He wants? In our fast-paced culture, who has time for discernment? And worst of all are those religious leaders who are seized with a sense of their own importance and identify their cause, their arguments, their judgments, with the cause, the arguments, and the judgments of God. When they believe their actions are the immediate consequence of God's Providence, that they are agents of the Providence, pride has won.
The Church tempers any sense of immediacy by revering the mystic but not relying on mystical experiences to guide the Church. We mediate the experience of God through our Scriptures, through our tradition, through our sacraments, through our ways of doing and thinking, through our Catholic culture. This is a good thing even if it makes people impatient, especially if it makes people impatient. In the case of Pope Benedict, when he said he had attained the "certainty" the he should resign, we know that this was no fly-by-night decision, but a decision taken with a great sense of the tradition, perhaps even an awareness that the papacy had grown overlarge in the life of the Church in the latter years of that tradition, but in any event, an act of freedom that touched on a deeper sense of fidelity to the Gospel than fidelity to recent papal precedents.
I suspect that history will be kinder to Pope Benedict than most contemporary assessments. He was like a man from a different place and time. He wanted to reclaim Christianity's historic understanding of beauty as an attribute of the divine, which is as culturally important a task as any I can think of, but for Joseph Ratzinger, beauty equaled the baroque and ours is not a baroque era. Far be it from me to criticize his affinity for the baroque, not least because I share it, although I tend to the less flowery English baroque we associate with the architecture of John Vanbrugh than with the Bavarian and Roman extravaganzas that warmed Benedict's heart. But at a time when the Church was still suffering from the self-inflicted wound of clergy sex abuse, people could not follow Benedict's aesthetic sensibilities. In this regard, Pope Francis, who finds beauty in the slums, is better suited to restoring the Church's credibility at this moment in time.
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That said, Benedict's pontificate was seminal in critical ways. His theological writings on the environment were more profound, and more urgent, than those of any other world leader, and surely the environmental crisis we continue to invite will be one of the most challenging crises humanity has ever faced. Benedict, first as cardinal and then as pope, vastly improved the Church's handling of the sex abuse crisis. He emphasized, time and again, that the Church's life cannot be reduced to a set of ethical prohibitions, and set out the theological rationale to fight such reductionism, even if he lacked his successor's pithy manner of making the case. His critique of the modern economy similarly paved the way for Francis' more accessible criticisms: Without Benedict's theological foundation, would Francis be so sure of himself in speaking as he does? Surely not. Indeed, his encyclicals all began the transition from the theologically significant tomes of John Paul II to a more pastoral application of theology that Francis is clearly going to carry forward.
From the moment Benedict announced his resignation, everything he did would be precedent-setting. That was a final burden of office and he carried it with aplomb. He removed himself entirely from the Vatican while the cardinals assembled to begin selecting a successor. He did not intrude into the ceremonies with which Francis was installed as bishop of Rome. He has lived quietly, never letting his presence or his words become a source of division within the curia. How few other people leave the world stage with such grace?
Regular readers will know how excited I am by the vistas Pope Francis has opened. Who cannot be excited by the sensation that the wind is at our back? But more and more, I have come to appreciate Benedict's papacy and its final act, as well as his theology. If anything, I wish he had permitted more of his theology to inform the rewriting of the catechism! Yes, he did not always put the right person in the right post and his papacy became a hotbed of intrigue, although I can think of no one who besmirched his pontificate as Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado besmirched the reputation of John Paul II. And by setting aside the power that was his, he set the model for future pontiffs: Nothing good comes of an incapacitated pope and the risk that some will, for nefarious purposes, pressure a future pope to resign is outweighed by the need for a leader of the Church whose physical and mental abilities are equal to the task. The only way to teach that to the Church was to act on it. Benedict did that.