Was Benedict XVI right to abdicate? While there is no doubt as to the validity of his resignation, was it God’s will? More than three years after the fact, in light of his own recent explanation of his decision, it is not clear that it was the will of the Holy Spirit.
Last Testament, Ratzinger/Benedict’s latest book with Peter Seewald, his interlocutor in three previous interview books, has already been reviewed by our editor Luke Coppen. There is much to recommend it – an excellent gift for Christmas – and I expect I will return to it again in these pages. Yet the most important part of the book is Benedict’s explanation of his abdication in February 2013.
At the time of the abdication, Benedict said only that it was his diminishing strength that made it such that he could not continue in office. That left the Catholic world with unresolved questions. First, it was manifestly not true that Benedict lacked either the mental acuity – demonstrated again in this latest book – to be aware of his responsibilities and to make decisions. And, given that all popes always get weaker before they die, his diminished physical strength itself appeared not to be disqualifying either.
Thus it seemed that what had never been done in the history of the Church was not justified. Seewald himself clarifies in his questions that never before had “a genuinely ruling pontiff stood down from his office”. Surely circumstances were not so grave in 2013 to provoke such an innovation?
On the other hand, knowing Benedict’s great humility, his long willingness to serve in offices which he did not welcome – Archbishop of Munich, prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, pope – and his own reverence for the Church’s tradition, it seemed to many, including me, that if he did abdicate there had to be good reason for doing so. Yet Benedict himself did not provide a complete contemporaneous account of the decision.
Now in Last Testament he has chosen to do so, answering the questions Seewald puts to him. He makes three main points. First, that he was not pressured to abdicate. Indeed, he insists that had there been pressure, or some crisis, he would not have been free to abdicate, as it would have been “fleeing from the wolves”, which he resolved not to do in his inaugural homily as pope. He was free to go, he insists, precisely because there was no urgent reason to do so.
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