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Some Early Thoughts on the Pope’s Resignation

• As Cardinal Ratzinger, this pope had intimate knowledge of the declining years of John Paul II, even commenting at least once that that pope would resign if the burden of office became too great. Maybe JP2 thought that way; maybe he didn’t. Clearly, however, Benedict XVI meant what he said.

• It cannot have been any great joy to be Pope Benedict XVI. Continued decline of the church in the United States and a crisis in its huge parochial school system; continued decline in Europe, most noticeably in former Catholic strongholds; a sort of “living museum” existence in Rome; and a church struggling for relevance in a Latin America while evangelicalism flourishes, struggling for dominance, even violently, against Islamic forces in Africa, and struggling for a modus vivendi with the government in China. All this, and the rising tide of horror that the global child abuse scandal represents, a scandal that touched the Pope himself while a church official in Germany. Little in the way of new initiatives; lots in the way of retrenchment and apology. This has been the No Fun Papacy.

• It took a lot for the cardinals to elect a non-Italian when they voted for Pole Karol Wojtyla to become John Paul II. His right-hand man was German Josef Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, a relatively easy choice in the wake of such a popular pope. No such lieutenant stands by to take over now. Maybe Marc Ouellet will be next: Who doesn’t love a Canadian for a non-controversial innovation, “First Pope from the Americas”? Maybe one of the African front-runners, although their very experience in battling with Islam may give them both the savvy and the enmeshment that would at once qualify and disqualify them from one of the world’s most difficult diplomatic offices. Early front-runners rarely win. Place your bets carefully.

• No leader should stay past the time of his usefulness. Ratzinger, like him or not, was a very useful cardinal at John Paul’s behest. He has been able to accomplish much less, it seems, as pope during this latter era. The most important part of his legacy, then, may be his setting the modern precedent for leaving this office voluntarily, for the good of the Church. Indeed, nothing has become his papacy like the leaving it.


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