NEW YORK, February 12, 2013
The Catholic Church is nothing if not a repository of tradition.
Pope Benedict XVI may have shocked the world and shocked his church by announcing his resignation Monday, but we can be sure that the decision was not sudden, nor on impulse.
The Roman Catholic Church, when it comes to official actions, all but regulates when one is allowed to breathe in, and breathe out. An act as sensational and stunning as Pope Benedict’s resignation is infinitely more to be governed by microscopic level probes into precedent and Canon Law.
Canon law of the Catholic Church is the oldest functioning legal system in the Western world. It evolved over the course of the millennia, originally scattered throughout thousands of papal and diocesan decrees, decisions, and commentaries.
Pope Pius X commissioned their codification in 1903, which was completed in 1917 yielding 2,414 canons. In 1983, John Paul II approved about 20 years of new work that finally resulted in the 1,752 canons. These continue to guide Roman Catholic decisions to this day.
As a legal system, canon law is concerned with protecting the smooth order of the society that it serves, in this case the Roman Catholic Church. We can be sure that Pope Benedict’s Monday surprise was as deeply lawyered as any decision ever made in the Catholic Church.
For me, this resignation was a great act. We are treated as eye-witnesses to an historic moment of religious movement and courage at is best. Non-religious media with scurry around with blood hounds sniffing through medical journals, or in the dark corners of power. But for the Holy Father himself, the wellspring of his decision is about the interplay of his physical, mental and spiritual condition, his Papal responsibilities, and his range of options as dictated by Canon Law.
The context of this decision is the history of the Papacy, and the state and future of Roman Catholicism in our world today.
In the past 1000 years, only four Popes prior to Benedict XVI have resigned office; Benedict IX in 1045, Gregory VI (Benedict IX’s uncle) a year later in 1046, Celestine V in 1294, and Gregory XII in 1415.
From these, 3 of them occur in the midst of shenanigans and disorder, including two of them while the church suffered dysfunction so severe as to have rival claimants to the Papacy.
Only Celestine V comes close, if we are to trust the history books, to resigning with integrity and honorable purposes. According to a report in the Guardian, Celestine V explained that his resignation was out of “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, and his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”
He went on to become a hermit.
Though our current Pope has strong critics, like every public figure in this current fractious, peevish age, I place this Pope’s resignation in the tradition most close to Celestine V, but in fact higher. Pope Celestine V served only 5 months in office before assessing himself ill-suited to its burdens. Benedict XVI however, stood valiantly in the throes of a horrible time to accept this mission, and did so until the very last moments when he feels he no longer has sufficient stamina and fortitude to do justice to the mission.
Benedict XVI agreed to follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest and most charismatic religious figures in recent memory, Pope John Paul II, a person blessed not only with great personal gifts, but also with the chance to lead during a dramatic time in history, concurrent with the evident fall of militant atheism. Following a great figure is never welcome nor easy.
Secondly Benedict XVI agreed to accept the leadership of a church knee deep in vile and horrid perversion, compounded by confused and borderline evil management of the sins by which it became infected. Again an assignment unwelcome to a monstrous degree, yet Benedict XVI was willing to accept.
Celestine V’s resignation though not in scandal and disorder was more for personal preservation. Benedict XVI’s resignation however, is for the sake of his Church. This is where the nobleness of his announcement lies.
By meeting the limitations of age and decline publicly, and head on, Pope Benedict XVI has taken a courageous, monumental step for the modernization and progressive development of his community of faith.
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