POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: Why Pope Benedict quit: four hypotheses

photo John McColgan, author of the recently published "Where ever The Truth Might Lie," will hold a book signing Sunday, Feb. 19, from 1 to 4 p.m. at Arrowhead Chocolate shop in Joseph.

Whether you are an armchair analyst or a lifetime Catholic – or both, like me – you might find it hard to resist the temptation to speculate on the underlying reasons for Pope Benedict’s stunning decision to step down from the papacy. Please allow me to use the Jesuits’ device of playing devil’s advocate by suggesting four hypotheses, none of which are mutually exclusive, about Pope Benedict’s possible motivations.

First, let us consider Benedict’s own explanation, which, for most of us lay people – and, I suspect, for even some of the cardinals to whom His Holiness addressed his surprise proclamation – required the help of a translator. Shrouding what was an intrinsically enigmatic decision even deeper in mystery, the pope chose to deliver his announcement in Latin, the language that was used for centuries in all Catholic rituals, but one which is used only infrequently at Masses today, and which is rarely spoken, even among ecclesiastical scholars.

But if we trust the news accounts of what transpired, then Pope Benedict has stated that because of his declining health and advanced age, he did not in good conscience believe that he could continue to fulfill his duties as head of the Catholic Church. For many of his amazed listeners, especially for devout Catholics who are accustomed to accepting their pontiff’s words with no second guessing, that explanation will probably suffice.

But for those of us who view faith not as blind, unquestioning acceptance but as trust even in the face of doubt, it seems legitimate to wonder if there might really be more to this story. The second theory that I propose is that maybe Pope Benedict is not simply sick, but also genuinely tired. Bear in mind that Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known prior to becoming pope, was ordained as a cardinal in 1977 and served as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, which is one of the highest positions of leadership within the Vatican. In that role, Cardinal Ratzinger saw it as his task not only to battle the encroaching forces of secularism in the outside world, but also to defend the Catholic Church’s teaching from liberal elements within its own walls, such as the laity and clergy who were lobbying for the ordination of women and for a relaxation of the rule of celibacy for priests.

Cardinal Ratzinger was also responsible for investigating thousands of cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy. In the latter years of John Paul’s term, as the aging pontiff became debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, Cardinal Ratzinger became the pope’s right-hand man and the Dean of the College of Cardinals. It is easy to understand why after 36 years of arduous, often heart-wrenching service as a key cardinal and later as pope, Benedict XVI would ultimately desire some time of peace and contemplation in his final years on earth.

A third possibility is that perhaps another shoe is about to drop at the Vatican, or elsewhere in the Catholic world. The Italian media, which thrives on scandal, seems convinced that the pope’s decision is a case of intrigue that might involve new revelations about sexual abuse and cover-up, corruption at the Vatican Bank, or information stolen by the pope’s butler. Somewhere in an undisclosed location, novelist Dan Brown is probably smiling as he cooks up a sequel to his earlier Vatican whodunits.

Finally, while we’re still delving into the realm of fantasy, allow me to propose what I will call my Obi Wan Kenobi theory. Remember in Star Wars when Obi Wan and Darth Vader were locked in a light saber battle of good and evil, and then mysteriously, Obi Wan chose to surrender the fight, sacrificing his life for a larger victory. Why did he do it? You may recall that the Jedi master believed that he had identified a younger man, Luke Skywalker, who could carry on the battle against Vader even after Obi Wan was gone. Perhaps Pope Benedict too believes that by surrendering his papacy now, he has a better chance to leave his final imprint on the church by having an influence on the selection and mentoring of his successor.

Whatever Benedict’s reasons might be for retiring, very soon the election of the next pope will be in the hands of the College of Cardinals, who will in turn be praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. My prayer and the prayers of a billion other Catholics will be with them as they open themselves to God’s wisdom, power, and providence.

John McColgan writes from his home in Joseph.

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