Pope Benedict the Quitter?

As the world received the surprising news that Pope Benedict will be the first pope in just under 600 years to retire rather than die in office, the commentariat struggled to produce instant analysis. A typical facile effort (particularly typical for Slate), was this Tweet linking to a piece by the late Christopher Hitchens asserting that this pope’s “whole career has the stench of evil.” Not that they wanted to be critical or hostile or dismissive or anything. (Of course, as always, the Hitchens piece is powerfully written. If atheists had a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Hitchens would have been the perfect guy to head it up. Whatever he had to say, I almost always admired how well he said it.)

By contrast, I was impressed by the quick-draw thoughtfulness of this piece from The New Yorker. An excerpt:

One thing is clear: Benedict has made a conscious choice not to be John Paul II, who turned his own wrenching, illness-filled last days into something like a parable. It could be hard to watch John Paul wave at a crowd with a hand that trembled, and he knew it, and sought consciously to use that time to emphasize his community with anyone who hurt, and with his God. Say what one will about John Paul II, but one couldn’t honestly read his biography without being moved—he worked in a limestone quarry during the German occupation of Poland, studying at a secret seminary—and one can’t quite blame Benedict for not matching that, or for lacking John Paul’s Popemobile charisma or the manner that made his faith seem so manifest. But then it was John Paul II’s conservatism, particularly in the selection of cardinals, that assured Ratzinger’s succession. And which way is really better? Should pain—not only of the ill, but of the poor—simply be borne? One can argue that Benedict is far more honest—and by providing a valuable example of his own about knowing when one is done, perhaps he is doing the Church a six-century-overdue favor. But it is inescapable that Joseph Ratzinger has not lived, and will not die, as Karol Wojtyla did.

That’s an interesting thing to contemplate. There is an object lesson, and particularly a spiritual one, for the world in how a man perceived as so powerful deals with the powerlessness of age and sickness. Like John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (Columbia’s homeboy) did what he could to be an exemplar of how to face a terminal illness, showing solidarity with the weak and suffering of the world. In other words, they imitated Christ.268e5db8bcfc76f99fe9b324a4fbc86f

On the other hand, does not the head of any major organization, including the church, have a stewardship responsibility to make sure there’s someone in the job who’s up to it?

I thought it an intriguing question to raise, particularly since I’m not entirely sure how to answer it. The Pope’s made his decision, though, and as is his habit, he didn’t check to see what I thought first…

16 thoughts on “Pope Benedict the Quitter?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Now, to leap to Slate’s defense…

    That wasn’t the only Tweet they put out this morning about the Pope’s startling announcement. It was just the first one I saw. They sent a video link, they provided history on the last pope to quit, and they noted the coolest thing about the news — that he announced it in Latin, without warning.

    Anyway, I thought it was cool. It was like, “Is the Pope Catholic?” Apparently, this one is. Culturally, anyway…

    And when was the last time in this world that a journalist got a scoop on the whole world because she understood Latin? That would have pleased Mrs. Kinney, my Latin teacher at Bennettsville High School (even though she taught Classical Latin, not Church Latin).

    Oh, and one of the Slate’s Tweets raised a question similar to what The New Yorker one did, only without the spiritual element…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Also, there was an error in the New Yorker piece I praised for thoughtfulness — which points to the problem with instant analysis.

    The writer, Amy Davidson, notes that Benedict, the first pope to use Twitter, Tweeted this “somewhat obliquely” after his announcement: “We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new.”

    According to Twitter, though, that went out yesterday. The pope’s Twitter feed has been silent since his announcement…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, by the way… the first media outlet I turn to for depth and perspective on such developments as this is The New York Times.

    When I was the news editor of the Wichita paper in the mid-80s, part of my job was to compare the reports of all the major papers and news services, in an effort to pick the very best version of each story for our paper each night. That caused me to examine, and think about, the nation’s newspapers far more critically than I ever had before, or ever have since.

    Something I learned was that the NYT had writers and editors who understood, and were able to present clear explanations of, subject areas that other American papers fell down on. Religion was one of those areas. Another was science. (Two other things that most newspapers do a lousy job on, as a result of having too few staffers who understand them, are the military and guns. I don’t recall whether I noticed any advantage the NYT had in those areas, though. Not that they didn’t; I just don’t remember.)

    I forget the name of the science writer who did such an awesome job in the days and weeks after the Challenger disaster, but I do remember he had the first story I saw anywhere pointing to O-ring failure as the probable cause.

    The same with religion. NYT generally tends to lack the cluelessness that afflicts so many news organizations on that front. Or at least, they did. I don’t have occasion to keep tabs as closely as I once did.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Another very cool thing they did — on slow news days, they managed to pull a scoop out of nowhere, on some story that nobody else was noticing, for their front page, and frequently for their lede.

      Every night, I’d look at the advisories for the NYT, the WashPost and the LAT, in which they told what would be on their front pages the next morning. On days when the others had nothing, the NYT would pull a surprising story out of the ether.

      It was very impressive. I took to waiting to see what they pulled out of their hat before making final decisions about our front page (another part of my job in those days). Consequently, those surprise scoops generally made my front, too.

  4. Karen McLeod

    This pope is a man more suited to the library and classroom, than to the papacy. I think he is wise in abdicating the papacy and allowing someone in better health to step forward. He has not and never has had the compassionate understanding that marked both Pope John Paul and Cardinal Bernadine. That’s not his fault; he’s a “head” person, not a “heart” person. The next pope will probably be very conservative as well given the cardinal college at this point. May God guide their choice.

  5. Steve Gordy

    Karen, a Catholic archbishop from Canada with whom I had several long conversations a couple of years made (in oblique language) a comment to much the same effect regarding Pope Benedict versus his predecessor.

  6. Kevin Dietrich

    Benedict was elected with the intention of being a placeholder, similar to John XXIII. After John Paul II’s lengthy reign, the college of cardinals wanted a short-term replacement who would, essentially, warm the Chair of St. Peter without starting down the road of major change. Benedict has done that, except for the fact that, unlike John, he didn’t die after five years.

    Benedict’s major problem is that he followed an ecumenical superstar: John Paul II. JP II will likely be canonized at some point and was certainly the most charismatic pope to be elected in a long, long time. He would have been a tough act for anyone to follow.

  7. Juan Caruso

    I am disgusted by the premise of this posting and every one of its preceeding comments as of 4:43 pm!
    If any have little clue as to why, you may never know, and may God bless you.

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