The other side of Benedict XVI

Clearly, unlike many bishops and priests that I know, he does not see his office as a privilege, a status or an entitlement

Aloysius Lopez CartagenasIn the summer of 1999 I was in a small group which was invited to a meeting with the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Little did we know he would later become Benedict XVI. We were all rectors of theological seminaries from different places in the world, and ours was the duty of training future priests and, in a certain way, future bishops as well. His was the duty to ensure the correctness of church teachings in these institutions.

All of us were very anxious. Based on portrayals we heard, we could not help but imagined him to be an ogre of a man and expected God’s Rottweiler to lecture us on orthodoxy. But we were all proven wrong.

In his 10-minute speech a gentle but firm human being reminded us that theology can be fruitful only in honest and mutual relations with other scientific and intellectual pursuits. He also challenged us to ensure that future priests develop the habits of dialogue and collaboration with people of other competences and expertise. He then spent the rest of the hour attentively listening to our concerns and problems, particularly in our relation to bishops. In the end, he surprised us all by insisting to have a photo with us!

When news broke about Benedict XVI’s resignation, I could not help but recall the side of him that we saw on that memorable summer day. Just as his humility, wisdom and courage left in me a lasting impression, his decision to resign, albeit shocking, is typical of the man: humble, wise and courageous.

Humble is the leader who does not think and feel he is indispensable. To the whole world Benedict XVI has admitted that “his strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” Clearly, unlike many bishops and priests that I know, he does not see his office as a privilege, a status or an entitlement. His is the office of strengthening his fellow bishops, not to lord it over them (1 Peter 5:3). That is why he did not hang on to it and for all his defects he is able to publicly ask for pardon.

Wise is the leader who thinks not of his own good but only the good of the entity he represents. Benedict XVI considers his resignation “a decision of great importance to the life of the Church.” To continue exercising the ministry he inherited from Peter in such a very inadequate personal circumstance would only bring harm than good for the whole church.

It’s a lesson for some Filipino bishops and priests who in their old age and obvious inadequacy would rather seek for extension in office or permanence in assignment. They virtually identify the church’s common good with their own personal status and are clueless that their people are unnecessarily bearing the brunt.

Courageous leap of faith

Benedict XVI’s decision is also courageous. Why resign now when, as Bruce Bradley, SJ puts it, “we live in a church manifestly struggling to come to terms with its inheritance from Vatican II.” Does Benedict XVI no longer believe the memory of Vatican II as a powerful force for renewal in the church and in the world?

It does not seem he is turning his back on the Council, although the few who are hostile to its vision and spirit would like him to do so. He is rather opening the way for another person who will be more up to the task of reinvigorating the church leadership in coming to terms with the unfinished project of Vatican II. After almost 8 years in office much work remains to be done but, in surrendering the office to the unknown, Benedict XV is making a courageous leap of faith.

His resignation is unprecedented in the modern history of the papal office. Most modern popes consider themselves “father of God’s family” and paternity cannot be resigned. On two occasions John Paul II considered the possibility. But he did not after having concluded that a pope could not resign “except in the presence of an incurable illness or an impediment” that would prevent the exercise of the office.

Nonetheless, Benedict XVI’s resignation will hopefully set a precedent in a church accustomed to having popes ruling for life or bishops leading for decades. He is telling us that the office and its demands have priority over the human capacities or personal agenda of the office-holder.

Needless to say, if bishops are required to retire upon reaching a certain age, popes, many theologians suggest, should not be exempt. As yet church law only provides legal guarantees for the validity of papal resignation should it happen.

Benedict XVI did not wait for an incurable illness or serious impediment or death. In doing so he is helping rescind the mystique surrounding the figure of popes in the church. Because of this mystique, according to Bishop Kevin Dowling, there is more than a perception “that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic.” Worse, not a few would in fact leave the realms of papal esteem and love to traverse into the territory of fanaticism and myth.

Benedict XVI’s action may be a small step in stripping the papal office of the ensnaring mystique and unnecessary burden it has accumulated through the years. Nonetheless, his resignation may provide a stable ground from which the church can make a giant leap.

His surprise resignation places the office of Peter in an irreversible trajectory where it can be construed in a way more attuned to a world radically changed almost 5 decades after the Second Vatican Council. –

Aloysius Lopez Cartagenas is from Loon, Bohol. He is former rector of Seminario Mayor de San Carlos in Cebu City and member of the Damdaming Katoliko sa Teolohiya (DaKaTeo), a society of Catholic theologians in the Philippines. He is the author of a book “Unlocking the Church’s Best Kept Secret” (Ateneo Press, 2012), an interdisciplinary study on the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

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