ROME (NY Times) — Citing advanced years and infirmity, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic world on Monday by saying that he would resign on Feb. 28 after less than eight years in office, the first pope to do so in six centuries.
Not six decades. Six centuries! 600 years!$! The last pope to resign was apparently Gregory XII, who left the papacy in 1415 to end what was known as the Western Schism among several competitors for the papacy.
As a Protestant, I don’t have a lot to say on this, other than that I hope his successor is more serious about transparency over the church’s failures (particularly as regards priests and children), more open to the idea of ordaining women, and less dogmatic about maintaining untenable practices and doctrines.
The Pope (or Ex-Benedict, as he’s being called on twitter) was apparently a quite progressive fellow early in his career, but something changed. The New York Times notes:
…he moved theologically and politically to the right. Pope Paul VI named him bishop of Munich in 1977 and appointed him a cardinal within three months. Taking the chief doctrinal job at the Vatican in 1981, he moved with vigor to quash liberation theology in Latin America, cracked down on liberal theologians and in 2000 wrote the contentious Vatican document “Dominus Jesus,” asserting the truth of Catholic belief over others.
When he was Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was known as “the pope’s Rottweiler” —he was the church’s official doctrinal watchdog. Harvey Cox relates: “He had disciplined and silenced several theologians who, he believed, had strayed over the line… including two friends of mine, the German Hans Küng (side note: I love Küng’s book Does God Exist?), and [he silenced] his own former student, the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff.”
What was the office that Benedict headed while in this roll? The “Holy Office of the Inquisition.” Only now, since 1965 it’s been officially known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. But with such silencing of needed alternative voices, one doubts whether the church really has moved very far from its past.
And of course, the Times notes, Benedict’s tenure was caught up in “the growing sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church that crept ever closer to the Vatican itself.” And Benedict cannot get off the hook on this:
In one disclosure, news emerged that in 1985, when Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he signed a letter putting off efforts to defrock a convicted child-molesting priest. He cited the priest’s relative youth but also the good of the church.
These scandals will forever mark his legacy, for better or worse. Joe Paterno’s fall from grace at Penn State was surprising and shocking, but at least outside of the church, when the truth finally came out, change was sweeping and serious. One just wishes it had come sooner, and one wishes the church might realize that sometimes you just have to own up to what you’ve done (or allowed to be done).
Will the church ever learn? Hopefully the next pope decides its time to stop living in the past.
Bryan Berghoef writes and tweets from the nation’s capital. His book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God invites you to engage in deep conversations over a good beer. You can follow Bryan on Twitter @bryberg.