Magazine article The Spectator

Benedict's Reformation

Magazine article The Spectator

Benedict's Reformation

Article excerpt

The Pope's resignation clears the way for a mission-driven new Catholicism.

Shock is probably the predominant emotion evoked by the dec is ion of Pope Benedict XVI to resign at the end of February. Given that the last papal resignation took place 600 years ago, it's understandable that the world has got used to the idea that being pope is a life sentence.

Indeed, previous popes seem to have got used to it as well. Some of them, including Benedict's immediate predecessor, were martyrs to the job, and not entirely metaphorically.

Suspicion is another reaction, less common perhaps but rife in high places. Mr Piers Morgan, himself a Catholic (who knew? ), tweeted his suspicion that there was more to Benedict's resignation than met the eye.

This is an insight into Piers Morgan, but also into a certain sort of modern mind that cannot quite believe in such things as modesty, humility, and indeed resignation.

But a surprisingly common response, especially among conservative Catholics and their fellow-travellers in other denominations, is some variation on regret, sadness, or disappointment. Insofar as these feelings arise because the Pope leaves to his successor a number of unsolved problems they had hoped he would solve as the heir to John Paul II, they are justified even if, as we shall see, such hopes were unrealistic in the first place. But there seems to be a still deeper sense of disappointment at play. Not only devout Catholics are accustomed to treating a pope almost as a kind of premature saint.

The secular media do it as well, except when they are seeking evidence of his hypocrisy or portraying him as an obstacle to progress.

Benedict's resignation undermines this pious illusion. It is a sign that he is demystifying the papacy in a modest and desirable way. He is saying that while every Christian should aspire to sainthood, being pope is no more and no less a step to it than the faithful performance of any God-given vocation.

And the papal vocation, while it demands holiness, demands a great many other things too. His resignation is the latest (perhaps the final) stage in the papacy's two-century shedding of temporal power and its trappings of spiritual monarchy. It is also an argument that if a pope cannot perform all or most of the tasks required of him, then retirement - which is specifically permitted under canon law, incidentally - becomes something to consider, even a duty, despite any preference the faithful might have for the image of a suffering saint.

To see the force of this argument in the modern world, imagine a job description for the post of Roman Pontiff: 'Applications are invited for the position of Chief Executive Officer of a multinational religious corporation. The successful applicant should have advanced degrees in theology and philosophy, experience in business administration, facility in ancient and modern languages, theoretical and practical knowledge of diplomacy, proven ability in the use of mass media, exceptional political skills (both public and bureaucratic), physical fitness and (if possible) sporting ability, and an unblemished reputation for both virtue and respectability. (Exceptions to the last requirement might be made for those candidates who, though they admit early and even extravagant lapses, can demonstrate a full recovery, either through sustained repentance or by miraculous intervention, attested to in both cases by no fewer than five witnesses of high standing in the community. )' How many of these qualities - and you can probably add some I've forgotten - did Pope Benedict possess? I count five of the eight. He was by all accounts a brilliant theologian. He spoke innumerable languages.

He had experience of business administration and diplomacy in his long years in the Vatican bureaucracy. And his reputation as a good and decent man has never been seriously challenged. But he has been frail for some time. Though he got better at using the mass media, he was never really good at it. …

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