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A Great Decision: The Abdication of Pope Benedict XVI

Daniel McInerny - published on 02/11/13

Pope Benedict will indeed be remembered as a pope who gave to the Church many precious fruits of his contemplation

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Pope Celestine V (1215-1296)–the last pope, but one, to abdicate the papacy until Pope Benedict XVI did so this morning–hasn’t received this much attention since Dante mentioned him in Canto 3 of the Inferno. In his poem Dante encounters Pope Celestine in what Dorothy Sayers calls the “vestibule” of Hell. Sayers remarks that the vestibule is reserved for those souls habitually characterized by indecision: “The Vestibule is the abode of the weather-cock mind, the vague tolerance which will neither approve nor condemn, the cautious cowardice for which no decision is ever final.” Accordingly, the souls in the vestibule whirl about without purpose, and among these souls are some that Dante recognizes:

                                    When I had recognized a few of these,

                                                I saw and knew at once the shade of him,

                                                the craven one, who made the great denial.

                                    Immediately I understood the truth:

                                                this was the low sect of those paltry souls

                                                hateful to God and to his enemies.

                                    These worthless wretches who had never lived

                                                were pricked to motion now perpetually…

                                                            (Inferno, Canto III, lines 58-65, translation Esolen)

Scholars agree that “the craven one” is Celestine, the saintly Benedictine hermit who became a surprise successor to St. Peter in July of 1294. Celestine abdicated the papal throne in December of that year, after only five fractious months in which his administrative naivté was demonstrated in abundance. For stepping down, Dante calls Celestine one of the lukewarm “hateful to God and to his enemies.”         

Some of Dante’s scorn for Celestine may be attributable to his even more thorough contempt for the man who succeeded him, Boniface VIII (for the ignominious fate Dante reserves for Boniface, see Inferno Canto 19). In any event, Dante’s assessment of Celestine seems hardly fair. Celestine certainly made his share of mistakes during his brief stint in the Chair of Peter. But he also was a man of great humility; a man who knew his limitations; a man who put the good of the Church before all (the pope, after all, has the perfect right to abdicate if he thinks it best for the Church). No doubt it was in part for Celestine’s admirable discretion that, only twenty years later, Pope Clement V declared Celestine a saint. Therefore we shouldn’t follow Dante in calling Celestine’s abdication “the great denial.” Rather, we should call Celestine’s choice to abdicate “the great decision” in that it was a choice to stand firm in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly to Celestine, it is also admirable that Pope Benedict XVI has decided that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” Like Celestine, Benedict has chosen to put the good of the Church above the expectation that a pope should always soldier on come what may. This is not a craven decision; nor is it a revelation of weakness to be starkly compared to Pope John Paul II’s heroic struggle to the end with his physical ailments. The Holy Spirit called John Paul and Benedict to different decisions. Perhaps Pope John Paul II’s call, as George Weigel remarked at the time, was to show a culture ever more afraid of death just how beautiful it is to die. And perhaps it is Pope Benedict’s call to underscore that the demands of the modern papacy require a pope of sufficient physical and mental stamina to undertake the prodigious task. It could well be that we are entering an age where the lifetime appointment of the papacy, like lifetime appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, is only held until “retirement” is advisable.

Both Celestine and Benedict share, of course, a devotion to the monastic tradition of St. Benedict. They share, also, a deeply contemplative bent which longs for silence and reflection but which nonetheless joyfully submits to the summons to put those contemplative gifts in service to the Church. To Benedict, especially, is most appropriate the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas which serves as the motto of the Dominicans: “To contemplate and to give to others the fruits of contemplation." (Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 188, a. 6).

Pope Benedict will indeed be remembered as a pope who gave to the Church many precious fruits of his contemplation. Foremost among them are his three encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est (2005), Spe Salvi (2007), and Caritas in Veritate (2009), tremendously rich documents which deserve to be revisited, or visited for the first time, by Catholics, other Christians, and all people of good will during this period of papal transition.

Among Benedict’s other papal writings special mention should also be made of his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, as well as his 2006 Regensburg Lecture, a magisterial indictment of the modern reduction of reason to the scientific paradigm that was unjustly maligned and roundly misunderstood by many critics.

Unlike Celestine, however, Pope Benedict proved himself to be an astute administrator, most particularly in his handling of the global clergy sexual abuse crisis, his persistence in rooting out corruption within the Legionaries of Christ and disobedience among orders of religious sisters in the United States, and his call to Catholic universities to renew their commitments to truth and the teaching authority of the Church.

We should also not forget what may be Pope Benedict’s greatest gift to the Church: this Year of Faith which commenced last October and which will end this coming November. As George Weigel remarked on NBC News this morning, it is surprising that Pope Benedict would abdicate right in the middle of the Year of Faith (and “abidcate,” Weigel advises, is the precise term: popes have no earthly authority to “resign” to). Yet the very act of abdication is a call to greater faith: faith that the Holy Spirit has guided his decision, faith that the college of cardinals will elect a worthy successor, the right man for just this moment in history.

But for this writer, the most memorable fruit of Pope Benedict’s contemplative wisdom is found in the homily he delivered at the traditional Mass before the conclave in April 2005, the very conclave that elected him pope. In a prophetic reflection on the situation of the Christian in the modern world, then Cardinal Ratzinger proclaimed:

Every day new sects are born and we see realized what St. Paul says on the deception of men, on the cunning that tends to lead into error (cf. Ephesians 4:14). To have a clear faith, according to the creed of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of "doctrine," seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the "I" and its whims as the ultimate measure.

It is interesting: to be carried about on every wave of doctrine, to be a drone in the “dictatorship of relativism,” is not this the craven posture of souls whom Dante saw fit to consign to the vestibule of Hell? Far from assuming such a posture himself, Benedict warns of the dangers that befall a world that rejects a bold and enduring commitment to the transcendent source of all value. Fortitude in the face of aggressive secularism had long been a theme of his thinking. As early as the late 1960s, Josef Ratzinger predicted that as the world became more secular the Church herself would become smaller and lose some of her social privileges, but for all that she would become a bolder and more effective witness for the times.

What it means to be a Christian witness in a secular age: this is perhaps the keynote of Pope Benedict’s XVI papacy. And in the April 2005 conclave homily, Cardinal Ratzinger revealed the “fundamental formula” for such witness. He declared that the only fit response to the dictatorship of relativism was a life committed to both love and truth and the God in whom they are united in perfection:

St. Paul offers us a beautiful phrase, in opposition to the continual ups and downs of those who are like children tossed by the waves, to bring about truth in charity, as a fundamental formula of Christian existence. Truth and charity coincide in Christ. In the measure that we come close to Christ, also in our life, truth and charity are fused. Charity without truth would be blind; truth without charity would be like "a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1).

In abdicating today the Chair of Peter, Pope Benedict has acted in a way that harmonizes the truth about his human limitations and his great love for the Church. The harmony of love and truth is a theme that Dante also wrote about, and one which, this time, he undeniably got right. As Dante and Beatrice reach the Empyrean of Heaven, Beatrice shows Dante the abode of Truth and Love:

                                                            We’re on the outside of

                                                the highest body, in the purest light,

                                    In intellectual light, light filled with love,

                                                love of the true good, filled with happiness,

                                                happiness that surpasses all things sweet.

                                                            (Dante, Paradiso, 30, lines 38-42, translation Esolen)

Today, the Church affirms that Pope Celestine V, who abdicated the papacy some seven hundred years ago, resides among the blessed in that light “filled with love.” In the end, this may be the most significant fact that Pope Benedict XVI will share with Pope Celestine V: not abdication of the papacy, but the great decision to abide in the Holy Spirit that is the heart of sainthood. 

Pope Benedict XVI
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