Why Did Pope Benedict Resign?

Published May 4, 2017

Faith magazine (UK) - May/June 2017 issue

REVIEW: Last Testament—In his own words, by Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald; translated by Jacob Phillips, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 260 pp. US$24.00


In a recent interview, German journalist Peter Seewald explained that Last Testament – a book composed of interviews he conducted with Pope Benedict XVI toward the end of his pontificate and immediately afterward – was published in part to correct misimpressions of “one of most misunderstood personalities of our time.” Given the vicious caricature of Joseph Ratzinger as Der Panzerkardinal, a ruthless enforcer of Catholic doctrine, the intention is a noble one. Readers of Last Testament may wonder, however, what in this fourth of Seewald’s book-length interviews with the man who became Benedict XVI is going to change the views of a world media locked into its own certainties and “narratives,” much less the views of Ratzinger’s longtime Catholic critics.

For while there are bits and pieces of new information here, the essential truths about the man – his deep (and deeply Bavarian) faith, his extraordinary intelligence, his human decency – were already on display in Seewald’s three previous interview-collaborations with Ratzinger. And much as I wish it were not the case, I don’t see much in Last Testament that is going to convince those whose “progressive Catholic” program depends in part on the Panzerkardinal cartoon, and what that cartoon means for their version of post-Vatican II Catholic history, that they were gravely mistaken, and owe Joseph Ratzinger an apology.

Unprecedented abdication

Many will find Last Testament interesting for its primary author’s reflections on his unprecedented abdication. But here, too, there is little that is actually new, although there is detail that confirms what shrewder observers of Vatican life pieced together after the events of early 2013: that Benedict XVI’s poorly-planned 2012 visit to Mexico and Cuba convinced him that he could no longer travel; that he believed the Pope must be present at World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil, a conviction that became the terminus ad quem driving  the timing of the abdication and what immediately preceded it; and that, contrary to speculations that have become more lurid over time, Benedict’s concern about his increasingly frailty, which fueled his concern that he would be increasingly unable to give the Church what she deserved from a pope, was the sole motive behind his decision to renounce the Office of Peter – not Vatileaks, not concerns about financial and other corruptions inside the Leonine Wall, not blackmail.

Unanswered questions

Having known Joseph Ratzinger for almost thirty years, I have always been prepared to take him at his word on this, as I think any fair-minded observer who knows the pope emeritus for the honest man he is would have to do. Still, the account of Benedict XVI’s final years in office in Last Testament leaves numerous questions unanswered.

Must the pope be at World Youth Day in person? Might Benedict not have sent some of the more compelling personalities in the College of Cardinals to represent him live in Rio de Janeiro, participating himself by video-link from Rome? Was such a scenario ever considered? And if it wasn’t, what does that say in confirmation of Ratzinger’s own view – expressed before the conclave that elected him pope in 2005 – that he was not a man whose strong suit was governance?

As for the somewhat chaotic condition in the Vatican in the latter years of the pontificate – not to mention the poor preparation for the 2012 pilgrimage to Mexico and Cuba, which seems to have had an impact far beyond the Caribbean – why did Pope Benedict not find himself a more competent “prime minister” than Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whose record as Secretary of State the pope emeritus continues to defend in Last Testament: a defense that may be admirable as personal loyalty, but is inexplicable otherwise?

Does Benedict XVI have any regrets about his decision to live in a very private way as pope, absent the wide range of contacts that kept John Paul II more informed about the world and the Church than was possible by depending solely on information from the Curia and the Vatican diplomatic service?

A short pontificate

When he knew at the outset that his would be a short pontificate – as he candidly admits in Last Testament – why did he not think this was the optimum moment to reform the structure of the Roman Curia, whose dysfunction he knew very well after twenty-some years of working in, with, and against it? In other words, why did he consciously decide not to clean house, and perhaps appoint people with real governing skills to redesign the structure, so that his successor could start a fresh with a better chance at getting the Vatican machinery to work more effectively in service to the New Evangelization? It is true, certainly, that the preservation of the faith in its full integrity is the chief function of the Office of Peter; it is also true that it was precisely for that purpose that those who promoted Ratzinger’s candidacy in Conclave 2005 did so. But that still leaves unresolved the question of why Pope Benedict did not seize the opportunity presented by a short pontificate to effect real Curial reform.

Who was involved in, and what was the thinking behind, the decision to compound the historically unprecedented nature of his abdication with the equally unprecedented – indeed, unimagined – title of “Pope Emeritus,” and the distinctive, quasi-papal vesture Benedict adopted in his retirement? Was any consideration given to other possible arrangements (e.g, his reverting to being the archbishop-emeritus of Munich and Freising, perhaps re-enrolled by his successor in the College of Cardinals)? If there was, what was the theological and prudential reasoning that led him to adopt the style and self-presentation he did?

Post-Benedict turbulence?

In the long run of Church history, what will be remembered about the pontificate of Benedict XVI is its luminous magisterium and powerful homiletics. (Does anyone seriously doubt that Benedict was the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great?) And what will be remembered about Joseph Ratzinger, thinker and author, is a body of work that bent the course of Catholic theology in a more richly biblical and patristic direction. So the questions about Ratzinger’s capacity for governance will recede into the background, and perhaps even be forgotten, in time. What will remain is what is far more important over the long haul: his brilliant restatement of classic Christian faith for late modernity and early post-modernity.

But given the post-Benedict turbulence in the Church, which begins to resemble the chaos of the post-conciliar 1970s that Ratzinger rightly deplored (and did much to repair), it would have been useful to get some clearer answers from Last Testament about the months that led up to the papal transition of 2013 – and the reasons why things had come to such a state of affairs before Benedict XVI took the decision to step down.


George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His two- volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, has been translated into over a dozen languages.

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