Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he will resign, the first pontiff to… (Gregorio Borgia / Associated…)
In nearly eight years as pope, Benedict XVI embraced a traditionalist — and to many critics, authoritarian — view of both the papacy and of church teaching. So it's ironic that he will be remembered for his revolutionary decision to relinquish the Chair of St. Peter rather than die in office, the first such abdication in nearly 600 years.
Benedict's announcement Monday that he will retire at 85 because his "strength of mind and body" had deteriorated reflects an admirable acknowledgment of the reality of physical decline. But it also will discomfit conservative Roman Catholics, who worry that the existence of a former pope might dilute the mystique of the office. It is liberal Catholics who have argued that bishops of Rome, like other bishops, should resign when their duties become a burden.
Early in his career as a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger could have plausibly been described as a liberal Catholic. But in the years after the Second Vatican Council, in which he participated as theological advisor, he became disenchanted with the results of the council's call for an engagement with the modern world. As pope, Benedict continued to rein in dissident theologians, revived the widespread use of the Mass in Latin and rescinded the excommunications of bishops from a breakaway Catholic sect that rejected the teachings of the Vatican Council. In an initiative that strained relations with Anglican churches, he made special provision for the reception into the Roman Catholic Church of groups of conservative Anglicans (including married priests). The pope's reverence for the traditional authority of the church may also have figured in his failure to respond forcefully to the church's child sex abuse scandal.
Those controversial actions didn't completely define his papacy. He also issued eloquent encyclicals about love and hope, presided over a "New Evangelization" and, in a subtle rebuke of fundamentalism, insisted that faith was compatible with modern science. But the central theme of this papacy was the importance of holding fast to ancient truths, not an openness to the new insights that Catholics believe represent the workings of the Holy Spirit.
In choosing his successor, the College of Cardinals is not about to elect a pope who believes abortion is moral, that women should be ordained priests or that the church should bless same-sex marriages. But the cardinals might conclude that the next pope, even as he affirms the basic teachings of the faith, should be less doctrinaire and more pastoral than Benedict, and more willing to decentralize authority in the church.
They also might — and should — choose a pope who will be a credible champion of children abused by members of the clergy. Both before and after his election, Benedict was insufficiently vigilant about the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and the hierarchy's self-protective impulse to cover up the crimes. Whatever his other opinions and accomplishments, the man chosen to be the next bishop of Rome should have an impeccable record of protecting children from wolves in shepherd's clothing.