After Pope John Paul II died in 2005, hundreds of thousands thronged into St. Peter’s Square, chanting, “Santo subito!” (“[Make him] a saint now!”) There will be no such chants in the piazza on the day Pope Benedict XVI relinquishes the office of Bishop of Rome. For all the drama and surprise of the news of his impending resignation, Pope Benedict’s reign will end in relative anticlimax. At 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, he will simply stop being pope and move into a simple dwelling in the back garden of the Vatican.
If John Paul II was a pope of dramatic, grand gestures, then Benedict XVI has been a pope of understatement. Yet one should never confuse a lack of flair for a lack of substance.
On the substance, the teachings of this seven-and-a-half-year pontificate are remarkable. Benedict’s three encyclicals — “God is Love,” “Saved in Hope” and “Love in Truth” — along with his hundreds of homilies, lectures, letters and speeches, reveal an intellect both subtle and incisive. Most importantly, they reveal Pope Benedict’s beautifully compelling love for Jesus Christ and His Church.
That love defines the man under the white zucchetto and is the key to understanding everything he says and does. It is also why this pope has so often confounded observers who tried to fit him into our usual pre-existing political categories.
At the Second Vatican Council, he was considered part of the “liberal,” reformist wing. Since then, self-described liberals and progressives have come to see Benedict as an arch-conservative, bestowing on him the unflattering nickname, “God’s Rottweiler.” Pope Benedict knows that he is only a custodian of the faith, not its author. It is not within his power to invent truth; he can only to teach it, clarify it and defend it.
Anyone who thinks that the Church’s teachings on women’s ordination, homosexual marriage or contraception would change if only “conservatives” would get out of the way of progress badly misunderstands the Church. It’s not “conservatives” who stand in their way — it’s the Catholic faith itself.
Political conservatives chafed when Pope Benedict fired one of his broadsides against the excesses and abuses of global capitalism. Yet he spoke always as a pastor, not a politician, and his criticisms always reflected a simple truth to which we all, conservatives especially, must nod: Markets, like governments, cannot of their own accord make men good. If we are to live well together, our goodness must be drawn from some deeper source.
Untethered from certain truths about ourselves and the world — the kind of truths found in the Declaration of Independence, for example — justice is reduced to mere convention. If we don’t know the worth and dignity of a person, how can we know what we owe to one another? In such a moral universe, only arbitrary willfulness remains, and the difference between being wrong and being bad is lost. When that happens, freedom itself is in danger, for a difference of opinion is tantamount to a crime, and merits only proscription. Pope Benedict calls this the “dictatorship of relativism.”
During this papacy, the Roman Curia has been rocked by a series of scandals — including questions about its handling of sexual abuse cases — and is widely seen to be in disarray. Whether Benedict himself is a poor manager or whether he delegated responsibility to men unequal to the task is probably beside the point. The next pope will face an enormous task in wrestling the Roman Curia out of dysfunction.
In light of these difficulties, many people have looked to find an ulterior motive for Pope Benedict’s resignation. Conspiracy theorists are making hay. Consider this, though: Only one pope in two millennia, Leo XIII, has ever lived past the age of 90. The simple fact — a fact quite obvious to most people — is that the world today runs at a faster, if less civilized pace. People, including popes, tend to live longer. Most bishops in the world are required by canon law to submit their resignation upon reaching the tender age of 75. No one over the age of 80 is allowed to vote in conclave for a new pope. At 85 years old, Joseph Ratzinger is already among the oldest men ever to serve as bishop of Rome.
Pope Benedict’s last act — his resignation — may turn out to be his greatest long-term legacy. The Church of the 21st century needs to be fully dedicated to its one and only mission: spreading the Gospel. As the demands of apostolic life increase, we may see more and more popes following Benedict’s example, and, when old age robs them of their strength, humbly stepping aside for the sake of the Church’s mission.
Humility isn’t glamorous or dramatic, but it makes for quite a legacy.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.