Pope has resigned because he felt he was no longer up to the demands the office made on him. Pope Benedict XVI is someone who has probably looked himself in the mirror and looked at his predecessors — no one else has done this — and said, “For me, I need to do this. Because I’m taking an honest look at my physical and mental and spiritual balance sheet, and I don’t have enough assets right now.” In some ways, it’s an act of great responsibility; of really responding to his spiritual duty. That hasn’t happened in 600 years.
In 1294, the hermit Pietro da Morrone, elevated to the papacy with the title of Celestine V because the cardinals couldn’t agree on anyone else, felt likewise after only six months in the job, and gave up. He wanted to return to his hermitage but Boniface VIII, his successor, thought it wiser to lock him up in a convenient castle for the rest of his life, fearing he might become a rallying-point for the disaffected. And as it turned out, there was no shortage of disaffection during Boniface’s pontificate. One of the arguments marshalled by Boniface’s many enemies was that, because popes could not resign, he wasn’t the legitimate heir to St Peter. That may have been a long time ago but the same arguments are beginning to appear.
There are those in the Church who well might exploit such ambiguities were the new pontiff to choose a very different path from that of his predecessor on, for example, the role of women in the Church or – rather less contentious – the promotion of the traditional Latin liturgy.
A (very) short lesson in Catholic theology is necessary here: the rank of deacon, priest and bishop is regarded as sacramental, on a par with baptism or marriage. A bishop can resign his job, as can a priest, but theologically, says the Church, they are still bishops or priests. But being pope, however, is an office; it is not a sacramental status. The pope is pope because he is bishop of Rome. He can stop being bishop of Rome (all other bishops are expected to submit their resignation at 75), and therefore can stop being pope. No problem there.
Many people had expected that Papa Ratzinger would revert to being Cardinal Ratzinger, which is what happened to two rival popes in 1415. Instead of that sensible solution, it has been announced he will be “Pontiff emeritus”, dress in white but not read leather loafers and be called the honorific title “Your Holiness”, hopelessly muddying the waters and making him appear a quasi, alternative pope.
The confusion gets worse as the pope keeps his secretary, Archbishop George Gaensweinm, who is also the current head of papal household. The new pope may well find such proximity uncomfortable, feeling obliged to consult him especially on subjects Benedict made his own but he is sure to make his own changes.
Were Benedict to leave the security of the Vatican City and return, say, to his beloved Regensburg, some might attempt to sue him with failing to handle properly the clerical abuse cases which came before him as Archbishop of Munich, while others might turn his residence into a shrine, a rallying place for dissent from any new departure by the incoming pontiff.
There are legitimate questions about his title of pontiff emeritus. It opens him to accusations of pride, when he has hitherto been widely praised for his humility.