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The Papal Abdication

Benedict XVI’s problematic farewell.

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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After this, how will any of his successors feel able to do what John Paul II did, failing physically in the full view of the public—preaching one last homily with his death? Benedict speaks of the unique pressures of “today’s world,” which he insists require a younger man’s strength of mind and body. But today’s world is unique only because we say it is. Human life remains as it was, our aging and our deaths what they always were. 

In other words, the modern world doesn’t really need to see in the pope a model of competent administration, nice as that would be. It does need, however, a public reminder that we are not incapacitated as human beings when we age and prepare to die. We are not to be tucked away or compelled by moral pressure to remove our lives and deaths from public view. The older vision of life is the more complete one, and in today’s world, perhaps uniquely, we are in special need of remembering that.

Besides, there remains the problem of political theory that the aftermath of San Celestino’s abdication taught us. If popes can resign, then popes can be forced to resign, notwithstanding the fact that the church believes they are chosen with guidance from the Holy Spirit. And after they resign, what then? What are we to do with them? The sheer presence of a retired pope in a Vatican monastery may prove a burden and distraction for his successor. And if, with Benedict in 2013, a retired pope does not seem to pose a direct political threat, that hardly insures that no future retired pope will prove so. The political portions are part of the pope’s job, too.

That’s something, one suspects, that the ascetic monk Peter of Morrone didn’t grasp while serving as Pope Celestine V, saint though he was. It’s something that Joseph Ratzinger seems to have ignored as Pope Benedict XVI, saint though he too may be.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of The Christmas Plains (Image/Random House) and the novella “Wise Guy,” an Amazon Kindle Single. 


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