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The real story behind the Pope's resignation

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 15, 2013

What is the real reason for Pope Benedict’s decision to resign? What’s the story behind the story? Like thousands of others, I have been asking myself those questions since Monday morning. After a week of intensive reporting, and weighing the theories put forward by others, I have reached a conclusion. The real reason is the reason that the Holy Father put forward in his surprise announcement:

After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

There is no conspiracy to unravel. There is no major medical news that has been hidden from the public. Nevertheless, there still is a story behind the story.

Throughout his pontificate, Benedict XVI has acted slowly but decisively. He has weighed arguments and planned carefully before making major policy decisions, but once he has reached a decision he has been steadfast. He spoke about the possibility of resignation as far back as 2010. His brother testifies that the question has been on his mind for months. Finally Benedict XVI reached the conclusion that he was no longer capable of doing the job that needs to be done—not because of any particular medical emergency, but because of the gradual decline in energy that comes with old age.

Back in 2005, when they entered the conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II, the cardinals all knew that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was 78, that he had suffered a stroke, that his general health was not robust. Indeed his uncertain health was probably the best argument against electing him to Peter’s throne. But their enormous respect for the man outweighed their concerns about his health, and so he became Benedict XVI.

Since that time we have all seen how age has taken its toll on the Pontiff. Arthritis has made him increasingly hesitant in his gait, unsteady on his feet. He has needed more frequent pauses for rest. Yet he has continued to keep a demanding schedule of meetings with his staff, with other bishops, and with visiting dignitaries; public and private audiences; writing and speaking; and even occasional trips abroad. At 85, he has been working at a pace that would challenge most men twenty years younger.

Has there been any evidence at all that Pope Benedict is losing his mental acuity? Absolutely not. Just this week, at a Thursday-afternoon meeting with priests of the Rome diocese , the Holy Father apologized for not having a prepared address, and then extemporaneously delivered a cogent, well organized, and fascinating 45-minute talk on the interpretation of Vatican II. He remains a brilliant analyst, preacher, and teacher.

So why has he chosen to resign, if he can still perform his duties so well? The answer, I suspect, is that he cannot perform those duties often enough to satisfy his own standards. He can analyze and preach and teach, but only with sufficient rest. As the rest periods grow longer, and sessions of work shorter, he cannot do all that he sees must be done.

Since the Pope’s bombshell on Monday, the most revealing news from the Vatican press office may have been the announcement that the papal encyclical on faith will not be completed. Pope Benedict has reportedly been working on this encyclical since last summer, and it was scheduled for publication early this year. Yet the Pope—a man who has written dozens of books and countless scholarly articles—has not been able to complete a draft. He undoubtedly has the intellectual firepower for the task, but apparently he does not have the stamina to complete it.

One can easily imagine that Pope Benedict was frustrated by his inability to complete the encyclical, and brought that frustration to his prayer. Maybe the Holy Spirit eventually led him to the conclusion that he could not finish—that he was no longer strong enough for the work. We do know that, as he told the consistory on Monday, he had reached the decision to resign after careful deliberation and prayer.

If you know Benedict XVI at all, you know that he is firmly convinced that his resignation reflects the prompting of the Holy Spirit—that in an important sense it is God’s decision, not his own. It is no accident that in his public audiences during the past few weeks, especially on Ash Wednesday, the Pope has exhorted the faithful to surrender themselves completely to God’s will.

Still our question is not fully answered: Why was it necessary for the Pope to resign? Couldn’t he have trimmed back his schedule, asked his subordinates to take on more responsibilities, and saved his own energies for the most crucial matters? Couldn’t some other theologian draft the encyclical for him? Couldn’t the Roman Curia prepare his public statements? Evidently the Pope decided that the answer was No. His subordinates could not carry out his responsibilities—at least, not well enough to serve the needs of the Church.

Pope Benedict has seen what happened during the last months of the previous pontificate, when John Paul II had lost his strength and aides were conducting the business of the Holy See. There was no notable disaster during that period, in part because John Paul II could rely on the steadying influence of Cardinal Ratzinger. There is no figure of similar stature in the Roman Curia today, and the aides who have served Benedict XVI have not served him well. The Vatican has seen a series of embarrassing blunders and missteps during this pontificate. Pope Benedict knew that he could not rely on his staff to fill in the gaps left by his declining vigor. ”I don’t know what I’d do without you,” one says to a trusted subordinate. One might say that Pope Benedict has sent the opposite message to his own staff: “I don’t know what you’d do without me.” For the welfare of the Church, he could not allow the Roman Curia to act on his behalf.

Pope Benedict is an elderly man. For 8 years he has been fighting an exhausting battle, and often fighting it alone. He may have been able to fight on longer if he had reliable allies, but his closest aides have often compounded his troubles rather than solving them. Given his physical limitations, and the lack of help from his staff, it is extraordinary how much he has accomplished.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 16, 2013 9:12 PM ET USA

    I sincerely believe that the plain truth, to a world so badly benighted, is simply unacceptable. The doctrine and the teaching of the Church stand, but stand "rejected," to a world with an unsatisfiable appetite for intrigue. The world-system needs some sort of underlying darker explanation, however distorted, not so much to refute the truth of the resignation itself but in fact to obscure the reasonable moral demands of God.

  • Posted by: momtomany128421 - Feb. 16, 2013 2:13 PM ET USA

    Very reasonable analysis!

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Feb. 16, 2013 10:03 AM ET USA

    Phil, perhaps it would be better to change the link u have for the Holy Father's impromptu address to the priests of Rome, and make the link directly to the transcript itself, http://en.radiovaticana.va/m_articolo.asp?c=664858 . The Holy Father's comments on Vat 2 are very enlightening and Informative and well worth the time of anyone who would like to know the origin of the post Vat 2 troubles.

  • Posted by: Marija - Feb. 15, 2013 8:28 PM ET USA

    Excellent commentary!

  • Posted by: mateskub8508 - Feb. 15, 2013 7:40 PM ET USA

    There were several people among family and friends asking me, as the news spread like wildfire, why is the pope "really" resigning... I told them it would be a good idea to begin with the supposition that the Holy Father is saying the plain truth...

  • Posted by: jamesbell431857 - Feb. 15, 2013 6:12 PM ET USA

    This is quite simply the best analysis yet. Simple and clearly accurate.

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