By resigning, the then-pope was not only addressing his flock. It was a prophetic gesture to the secular world as well.
The death of a pope is always a media event – even if he’s an emeritus pope, surely one of the rarest of all rarae aves in the history of the Catholic church. It was Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, who announced the death of Joseph Alois Ratzinger on December 31, 2022. He was 95 years old. Almost 10 years had passed since his resignation on February 28, 2013.
Benedict resigned in Latin. This is no small gesture; the text of his resignation letter follows the phrasing of one of the key texts produced by the Second Vatican Council, the Christus Dominus. In its section on episcopal resignations, the document reads:
Cum igitur pastorale Episcoporum munus tanti sit momenti tantaeque gravitatis, Episcopi dioecesani aliique in iure ipsis aequiparati, si, ob ingravescentem aetatem aliamve gravem causam, implendo suo officio minus apti evaserint, enixe rogantur ut, vel sua ipsi sponte vel a competenti Auctoritate invitati, renuntiationem ab officio exhibeant.
“Since the pastoral task of the bishops is of such importance and gravity, diocesan bishops and their legal equivalents, if they have become less suitable for fulfilling their duty due to the burdens of age or some other grave cause, are earnestly requested to proffer their resignation from the office, either of their own accord or at the behest of the competent authority.”
Benedict’s resignation letter reads:
Conscientia mea iterum atque iterum coram Deo explorata ad cognitionem certam perveni vires meas ingravescente aetate non iam aptas esse ad munus Petrinum aeque administrandum.
“Having before God examined my conscience over and over, I have come to the certain knowledge that my strength, due to the burdens of age, is no longer suitable for properly administering the Petrine office.”
But this is, after all, inside baseball – something only Sunday Mass Catholics would (perhaps) care about.
Benedict’s resignation has a secular dimension that has perhaps been too often overlooked. In his famed encyclical Spe Salvi (“In hope we are saved”), while commenting on (and somewhat following) some of Max Horkheimer’s remarks on totalitarianism and instrumental reason, Raztinger states that “no one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power — whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts — will cease to dominate the world.”
Ratzinger not only resigned his office as leader of the Catholic church. He also gave up his status as sovereign of the Vatican City State. And this is, perhaps, an even more prophetic gesture – especially when seen from a secular perspective, and when considering Ratzinger’s own historical experience as a German.
The Origins of Totalitarianism was Hannah Arendt’s first major published work. In it, she describes and analyzes Nazism and Stalinism as the major totalitarian political movements of the first half of the 20th century. The third part of the book, entirely devoted to the study of totalitarianism, describes the mechanics of totalitarian movements. Focusing on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Arendt argues that totalitarian movements are fundamentally different from autocratic regimes for a relatively simple reason: While autocratic regimes intend to gain absolute political power by outlawing opposition, totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life – as a potential prelude to world domination.
Authoritarianism has been on the rise, on a global scale, for at least two decades – if not more. It is certainly telling that the only Western absolute sovereign who is not subject to the democratic rules of a contemporary constitutional monarchy, a man who is legally granted a lifetime right to rule, is willing to give up on that kind of power – especially when the basic structures of democracy seem to be being dismantled by those who desperately cling to power.
Ratzinger’s counter-cultural gesture (that of presenting power as the capacity to serve, and giving it up when one is no longer able to be of service) echoes that of John the Baptist: While Herod’s own cynical use of power translates into injustice, the Baptist’s courage points a radically different direction – a kenotic one: “I must decrease” (Cf. Jn 3, 30).