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After resigning, Pope Benedict hopes to disappear

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 27, 2013

“I am not returning to private life,” Pope Benedict XVI said at his final general audience on February 27. Some commentators have interpreted that phrase as a signal that the Pope intends to remain a public figure, even after he steps down tomorrow evening. That is a complete misunderstanding of the Pope’s message.

A high-profile “Pope emeritus” would be a constant source of confusion for the Catholic world. Every sentence the former Pope uttered, every public gesture he made, would be scrutinized for signs of disagreement with the reigning Pontiff. Having looked to Pope Benedict as an authoritative teacher, the faithful could not easily adjust to thinking of him as just another theologian. And yet it is the Pope, not the ex-Pope, who holds teaching authority. Only one man can serve as the Vicar of Christ. Surely Benedict XVI understand all this, better than anyone else alive.

So what did the Pope mean when he said that he would not return to private life? Take a closer look at what Benedict XVI actually said during that emotional Wednesday audience. “I am not returning to private life, to a life of trips, meetings, receptions, conferences, etc,” he said. “I am not abandoning the Cross.”

What the Pope here characterizes as the “private life” is actually the life of a major public figure: a prominent individual who attends conferences and receptions, who travels and makes speeches. This is what Pope Benedict says he will not do. Instead he promises to devote himself entirely to prayer.

Pope Benedict explained his curious use of the term “private” in the course of his Wednesday discourse. He remarked that when a prelate accepts his election as Peter’s successor, he gives up his own private life. “He belongs always and entirely to everyone, to the whole Church,” Pope Benedict said. “His life, so to speak, is totally deprived of its private dimension.” Thus when he said that he will not return to “private” life, the Pope was not contrasting “private” with “public” activity. Rather he was indicating that his life will not be his own “private” possession; he would remain totally dedicated to the service of the Church.

So do not expect Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI to make public appearances or deliver speeches. Unless I am very much mistaken he will write no more books, take no trips, attend no conferences, issue no statements. He might offer his advice to the next Pope—but only if and when his successor asks for his counsel. If friends visit him at his new residence inside the Vatican, he will avoid discussions of current controversies in the Church. His public profile will be as faint as he can make it.

Earlier this week, my colleague Jeff Mirus rightly criticized the “Prisoner of the Vatican Thesis”—the notion that Pope Benedict resigned because other Vatican officials had frustrated his plans and forced his resignation. That sort of conspiracy theory always has a certain superficial appeal, but it does not stand up to logical analysis. If the Pope is dissatisfied with his aides, he has the authority to replace them. As it happens, however, Pope Benedict went out of his way, during his final audience this afternoon, to thank the members of the Roman Curia for their loyal service. Vatican officials may have blundered sometimes during this pontificate, but they were not actively resisting the Pope’s authority. The Holy Father’s hands were not tied.

Beginning Thursday evening, however, the hands of Benedict XVI will be tied. By resigning his Petrine ministry, Benedict XVI is voluntarily relinquishing his power to control Vatican policies. He surely has his own fixed opinions on actions that should be taken, but he will no longer be able to take them.

Yet as he explained to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square today, Pope Benedict firmly believes that he can now serve the Church best by his prayers. Back in July 2010, on a visit to Italy’s Abruzzo region, Pope Benedict praised St. Celestine V, another Pope who voluntarily resigned his office. When St. Celestine stepped down in 1294, Benedict XVI said, he was not trying to avoid the challenges of ecclesiastical life; he was trying to respond to those challenges in the best way he knew, through contemplative prayer.

Actually St. Celestine did become a “prisoner of the Vatican” after his resignation—although he was not confined inside the Vatican walls. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, fearing the confusion that a “Pope emeritus” might cause, had St. Celestine arrested and confined in a castle, invisible to the world. Now Pope Benedict, who has followed St. Celestine into resignation, will imitate him in another respect, confining himself to an apartment inside the Vatican, doing his best to disappear from public life.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 28, 2013 2:52 PM ET USA

    Pope Benedict has accomplished more in less than eight years than his predecessor did in twenty-five. I am everlastingly grateful to God for his pontificate.

  • Posted by: rlloret6216 - Feb. 27, 2013 11:19 PM ET USA

    Thank you Phil for your clarity in helping us to understand. Pope Benedict been my husband's favorite author in recent years.

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