Joseph Ratzinger is a Christian by baptism, an adopted son of God. He is a bishop by ordination, a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. These two sacraments have each left an indelible mark upon his soul — they bring about an ontological change, as the theologians say. They last for eternity. Benedict XVI is Pope by election. And he will cease to be Pope by choice.
There is no doubt that the news comes as a surprise — it has been centuries since a Pope last resigned. What is not a surprise – or should not be a surprise — are the reasons Pope Benedict has given for his decision. He lacks the physical strength to be the shepherd his flock needs him to be. And so, recognizing that the Office of Peter exists for the sake for the Church, not the other way round, he will do what is best for the Church.
In yesterday’s Gospel reading, Catholics around the world heard Jesus say to Peter, “Put out into the deep.” The confidence of Peter in the word of Christ made him the apostle he was. Today, Peter’s successor is showing the same confidence, trusting not in his own abilities, but in the love of God for his Church.
Humility is not a modern virtue, in part because humility — not slavishness, but real humility — requires the kind of self-knowledge of which our culture is all but incapable. Pope Benedict XVI is resigning, not just because he knows his own physical and mental limits (though that is surely part of it), but because he has the confidence that comes from true humility.
- Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.