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Why has Pope Benedict XVI abdicated the Papal Throne?

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One may always take a German at his word. For, like “Vulcans” (yes, of the kind depicted on Star Trek) they, too, “never bluff”.

That’s because like Vulcans, Germans are ever logical.

What is the logic of the decision then? With applied attention, one should be able to draw out or fill in some of the ‘lines of logic’ in the Pope’s decision, even without certainty of details.

What has His Holiness said? It is the starting point.

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. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is. [Declaration, 11 February 2013]

His strength has waned: “[…] both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me […].” He has “come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer adequate to exercise of the Petrine Ministry”. His Holiness has come to the decision over time.

What kind of certainty? Personal? Surely. Medical? Most likely also. He has fallen, for example during the visit to Mexico last year and was treated then, to be sure, by a doctor, since he had injured his head. There have been the usual reports also that he has been seen by his personal physician for check-ups which are certainly sensible if not routine for a man of his age and state.

How deteriorated? ” […] to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

And it was not a realization that came to him suddenly.

So why not gradually reduce his work-load and cut back his schedule over the months as he had noticed his waning strength, instead of coming to the final decision with its so sudden halt on 28 February? Why not a proportionate response, over months, by a man of such modesty (good measure) and refined judgement? A gradual winding down of work & schedule?

Would that not be a ‘logical’ process of the decision, an option for German who is acutely aware of a sense of duty to the work entrusted to him, and so attuned to the Church’s traditions?

Since evidently he had not answered with that option, one may ask why not?

Perhaps he wished to spare himself of the typical reactions of the faithful (and unfaithful): principally the added attention. He is really a shy man, after all. And it must pain him when people fuss over him, not least when it is over something like the inevitable developments of old age or health.

Failing health. Perhaps, because he is actually ill? Could an illness be the cause of his weakness of late?

That might account for his decision, but it would also elicit a proportionate response. When illness flares up, if he was feeling fatigued by the work at this time or that, he could spend more time resting. Or if sometimes he had not the strength to travel or appear in public, he could ease back his schedule, or cancel future events.

But why the ultimate decision, instead of a lesser, more gradual or methodical approach to the strain? Why a form of the decision that brings with it a sudden full-stop?

Perhaps because the illness of which he has become certain is decidedly terminal also: a forecast of death itself, and something diagnosable with a ‘proportionate certainty’. A cancer perhaps?

Did you notice that he could barely open one eye during the talk he gave extemporaneously to the clergy of Rome a day or so after the announcement of abdication? Is there some neurological reason for that, behind the eye?

If it be a cancer, then rather than allow his absence in governance allow for a void to be filled by others to rule in his place — as happened under Pope John Paul II — he will allow the power of the Throne to be passed to a legitimate successor.

The above line of argument would account for the finality of the decision. (Not its sudden announcement, which is another matter; another aspect of the decision showing Pope Benedict’s wisdom.)

But all of the above notwithstanding, even if any of it proves to be true, none of the above or all of it could fully account for the depth of Christian discipleship in His Holiness’s every act, this decision included.

To account for that, it is only necessary to recall (thanks to Dr. Robert Moynihan’s leading ideas in a recent e-mail from Inside the Vatican the Pope’s last speech while visiting Germany. In it is the “Pope’s vision of the future”, as Dr. Moynihan writes.

In short, the abdication of the Papal Throne is a gesture of the restoration of the ideal of humility which the Pope sees as necessary for all members of the Church who are ever in need of reform. Churchmen must again recognize their power is other-worldly, not worldly. It comes from heaven and leads to bliss in heaven. It does not come from the world and fulfill itself in the happiness of the world: earthly power or social fame or material wealth.

His then is the renunciation of all worldly power, even every significant appearance of it, so that Holy Church’s mission may not be hindered: which is to bring all the world to repentance & eternal life in Christ. All the clutching of churchmen (and laity) to power in the worldly sense and its vain ways detracts from that.

His Holiness is dying, but not merely of the same terminal disease of age which depletes all men, but out of love for Jesus Christ Crucified. He will continue to carry the cross Christ has give him, now in hiddenness & seclusion, but no less.

Except for any vestige of the power of the spirit of the world.

It is said that when George Washington stepped down and aside after his term of election that it took the breath away of those who witnessed it. For never before had one so powerful relinquished the power over the life & death of a nation voluntarily to another in peace.

All the worldly power of the U.S. Presidency is no match for the spiritual greatness of the popes’ office. “How many divisions does the pope have?” Not one Soviet is there left to receive the answer for Stalin today.

That is a scandalous mystery of God’s gentle power — which none can vanquish and can vanquish all — which only the Prince of Peace and his own understand.

P.S. There is perhaps another reason to abdicate now. If His Holiness’s priorities set at the beginning of his pontificate is to continue without his — let’s face it — meddling, there is no better way to accomplish that than allowing his successor to do that. True, it hasn’t happened in over 600 years, but what successor of Peter is going to act contrary to his predecessor’s program while that predecessor is not merely lovingly remembered … but still alive and loved? What better way than to continue his priorities and even perhaps accelerate the accomplishment of them, after all, by someone with more strength than he?


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