Published on March 12, 2013, at a time of heightened speculation about the possibility of a pope from Asia.
I haven’t finished reading Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s dissertation, a theological thriller titillatingly titled “Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II: The Influence of Paul VI,” just yet, but one passage has struck me with the force of revelation.
“But Paul VI also poignantly laid bare the irony at the heart of the papacy: the divinely instituted center of communion constitutes in the present time the greatest block to Christian unity. The lofty view of the papal office supported by a sure faith is cast in an almost tragic shade.”
This insight, which I understand Paul himself recognized, is sandwiched between a recapitulation of his “abundant reflection” and “innumerable musings” on papal primacy as the gift of the first Vatican Council, and his “slow acceptance” of the teaching that supreme power over the Church was shared by the communion of all bishops, “united to its head.”
This tension which Paul felt with all his being reflected one of the central challenges of the second Vatican Council. In Tagle’s formulation: “Collegiality as a mark of the renewal of Vatican II must be related to the papacy as defined by Vatican I. This issue proved to be one of the most contested in the council”—and gave Paul, perhaps the most conflicted of all 20th-century popes, “the most torment.”
Like many others, I was stunned by Benedict XVI’s resignation. I spent the next several days after the announcement in a frenzy of research and reading, trying to make sense of it all. This column, published on February 19, 2013, was an attempt to pull all that reading together.
Even the most generous-spirited praise for Pope Benedict XVI cannot avoid making comparisons. Here, for example, is theology professor Vincent Miller, in a deeply sympathetic essay published in the Jesuit magazine America. “From the beginning of his papacy, in the shadow of John Paul—then called ‘the Great’—Benedict has struck a lower profile. Of course he lacked his predecessor’s charisma, but his gestures were so often intentional.”
Even an editorial critical of the charismatic John Paul II, in the weekly Tablet, slides easily into comparative-speak: “Pope Benedict’s legacy is largely spiritual and intellectual rather than public and spectacular, like that of his predecessor.” (The Tablet’s leanings can be guessed from the nickname, a play on another meaning of “tablet,” that its critics have bestowed on it: The Pill or, for emphasis, The Bitter Pill.)
The first thing that struck me, when I read the English text of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Declaratio” on the Vatican Radio website, was this passage:
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 barque 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.
I thought the Pope was referencing his predecessor’s last years in office, when Pope John Paul II’s Petrine ministry was precisely service “with prayer and suffering.” Referencing, and then finally rejecting, that sainted example, because of the present-day conditions in which the Roman Catholic Church found itself: “so many rapid changes,” “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”
I understood these phrases to mean a recognition of the stasis that had characterized Vatican decision-making in the first years of the 21st century, when Pope John Paul II’s ministry of suffering had offered believers everywhere a source of inspiration, but also a cautionary tale of governance.
PS. Amy Davidson of The New Yorker was thinking along the same lines.
Still stunned, some six hours after I first saw the news flash on TV. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign by the end of the month is unprecedented in the modern age; the last time a pope resigned, Christopher Columbus had not even been born yet. That is to say, when Gregory XII resigned in 1415, to settle the so-called Western Schism, the “New World” wasn’t even a concept. Pope Benedict’s bold, striking decision brings us—suddenly, dizzyingly—to uncharted waters.
Published on July 14, 2009
Halfway through Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” I thought I caught a glimpse of the true guiding spirit behind it. It was, to my surprise, not Pope Paul VI. Continue reading