In 1294, Peter of Morrone—San Celestino, little St. Celestine, as popular devotion calls him—was elected pope of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Spirit moves where it will; perhaps a shy, ascetic monk was necessary at that moment, to remind the church of its truest calling. The college of cardinals thought so, at least, desperate after two years of failing to choose a successor to Nicholas IV.
Still, no one should have been surprised that a man who had previously lived as a hermit in a cave in Abruzzi would prove one of the least competent administrators the world has ever seen. He never actually made it to Rome, ruling—if the word is allowed a certain looseness—from Naples and attempting such governance practices as disappearing for the whole of Advent to fast and pray. After five months and eight days in office, the saint had simply had enough. Citing his desire for a purer life, his physical weakness, his ignorance, the perverseness of those around him, and a longing for tranquillity, he issued a papal decree that popes had the authority to leave their office, and then took advantage of his decree to resign the papacy and flee to a monastic retreat in the forest.
Where he was promptly arrested by his successor and imprisoned till his death: a chess piece no one wanted but no one could allow to roam free in the complicated game of thrones that was European politics. A certain cynical wisdom lay behind the previous ban on resignations. It took a saint to brush all that aside—the political cynicism, perhaps rightly; the political wisdom, less so—and bad things followed. Pope Celestine V was intelligent enough to see the reasons that he should abandon the papacy, but he wasn’t quite wise enough to see the reasons he shouldn’t.
In 2005, a devout and serious theologian named Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, taking the name of Benedict XVI in honor of St. Benedict, one of the founders of Western monasticism and, in interesting ways, one of the founders of the West itself. At the time of his election, commentators made much of Ratzinger’s nod toward the Christian root of European self-understanding. They might have been better served by paying attention to his nod toward the monastic element—for in February 2013, Benedict XVI suddenly and inexplicably reaffirmed Celestine’s decree of papal authority to resign and announced his own resignation from the office, effective at the end of the month. He would, he informed the world, be spending the rest of his life in prayer, isolated within a monastery.
In certain ways, the decision is intelligent. For the rigors of an extremely public office, the 85-year-old pontiff is increasingly and recognizably unfit. Always something of an isolated figure, he was a man with few close advisers. “He never talked to anyone,” a Vatican official told me, “not really.” He seemed to have no friends who were also high officials in the church—no counselors who could understand the stresses of his position. Worse, his natural distaste for the glad-handing part of the job was a constant burden. John Paul II drew strength from crowds; they revived his spirit even in his infirm old age. Benedict saw and felt the press of people as a burden, necessary but uncongenial, and as the almost eight years of his papacy went by, one could see the endless papal audiences exhausting him more and more.
Besides, the central part of his public ministry proved to be his writing: As the wild schedule of jetting around the globe was to John Paul II, so authorship was to Benedict XVI—the place, the method, by which he hoped to reach the world. His Jesus of Nazareth collection (reaching its third volume this past Christmas with its bestselling account of the nativity narratives) may well prove the most lasting and influential project of his papacy, and why does he need to be pope to finish it? No, leaving behind the detritus and concentrating on the essentials, prayer and writing, in the years he has left—that’s the smart thing to do.
It’s just not the wise thing to do, maybe, as the reception of the news seems to have proved. The rehashing of the priest scandals in news reports—6 out of 26 paragraphs in the first New York Times piece, for instance—was probably inevitable; had he died, his obituaries would have done the same. But lurking within the ostensibly neutral reports was a suggestion that Benedict was resigning because of those scandals, and it filtered down the food chain of American information until the hosts of the television program Entertainment Tonight breathlessly suggested that the pope was forced to abandon St. Peter’s chair by a recent made-for-television movie about clerical sexual abuse on a cable channel.
“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” Benedict explained in the terse statement he read aloud, in his scholar’s Latin, to a consistory in Rome on February 11. The truth is, however, that if proper governance of the church—doing the hard administrative work needed to sail that ship of the fisherman, St. Peter—were all that is required of a pope, then Benedict should have resigned long ago. His aging has brought little new; he has been, all in all, a terrible executive of the Vatican. Not in San Celestino’s league, of course, but as bad as a pope has been for 200 years.
Some of the difficulties Benedict faced when he became pope derived from his Polish predecessor and the peculiar, fascinating way John Paul II seemed more to wear the papacy than rule it—administration by personal charisma. When John Paul II took office in 1979, he immediately perceived that he had been elected to lead an entrenched, recalcitrant (and mostly Italian) clerical bureaucracy in Rome—and a church outside of Italy that was still weak from the changes of the Second Vatican Council, locked in battles between conservatives, who thought the texts of Vatican II broke the church, and liberals, who thought the spirit of Vatican II required breaking even more.
John Paul’s solution was simply to do an end run around both his problems. He carried the papacy with him, rather than leaving it in Rome with the bureaucrats, and although he found a few people to help him with theological applications (notably Joseph Ratzinger), he mostly ignored the Roman world and used his personal staff as a kind of shadow Vatican—more real, as the years went by, than the Vatican itself. What’s more, he used the canons and decrees of Vatican II in a parallel way. Ignoring both armies of theological combatants in those 1970s-themed struggles, he ran around the world proclaiming directly to the people that Vatican II didn’t mark any break at all—but was, instead, a fully orthodox, fully intelligible flowering of the church’s long tradition.
As strategies for sidestepping the problems of his moment, both of these were brilliant and effective. Unfortunately, they also left the problems themselves unaddressed: time bombs waiting for his successor. For Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.
And off with a boom they duly went. A church bank so incompetently run that the Bank of Italy finally prohibited all electronic teller transactions on Vatican territory, in an effort to stop the local criminals who were using them to launder money and cash in on stolen credit cards. A household staff who were pilfering papers and selling them to journalists and souvenir seekers. A press office that lurched from crisis to crisis like arsonists in firemen’s clothes—apparently incapable of not pouring gasoline on the fires they were called to put out. The aftermath of the Regensburg lecture in 2006, for instance, in which the pope was accused of insulting Islam, ought to be mandatory reading for press secretaries in how never to behave.
As, for that matter, ought the press office response to the European reporting on the gradual uncovering, from 2005 to 2010, of the priest scandals of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s possible that John Paul II didn’t entirely believe the scandals at first; his only experience of such charges was in Communist Poland, where accusations of sexual crimes were a favorite device of the secret police to discredit opponents of the regime. But Joseph Ratzinger knew the actual facts, and it took stunning Vatican incompetence to turn him—one of the heroes of that vile era, the man who publicly denounced “the filth” in the church—into a popular villain of reporting on the priest scandals.
Perhaps no one could have done better than Benedict has with the looming problems that John Paul II managed to keep temporarily in the wings during the grand drama that was his pontificate. Still, the fact remains that Benedict has not done well with them—and perhaps mostly because he was never a good administrator. He was always a serious and absorbed theologian, and his advanced age is not the cause of his incapacity.
And yet, John Paul II also reminded us that running the Vatican isn’t the sole or even the most important job of the pope. Being a teacher, a living example of holiness, remains at the center. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering,” Benedict writes, but his resignation takes from the world stage that picture of a whole life, a rounded image of human existence with a shape and a goal.
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.