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.