On the Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI: A Brief Sketch of a Christian Humanist’s Legacy

On February 10, 2013, Pope Benedict surprised the gathered cardinals by announcing his resignation, effective 28 February 2013 at 8 pm. In Germany, this news even interrupted the customary media coverage of Carnival festivities, as the media began to transmit various reactions to Benedict’s resignation. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, honored the pope’s achievements in a short, almost moving speech, in which she called his address to the German parliament a historic highlight (eine Sternstunde) of this institution.

Benedict’s reasons for resigning reflect the entire theological outlook of this pope, whose work is one grand hymn celebrating the correlation of reason and faith. He is, of course, well aware of the expectations a pope must meet while holding office. In his resignation he says “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.” No doubt his predecessor, John Paul II, is alluded to with these words—the John Paul who showed the world a suffering pope. Yet duty can be interpreted in various ways, and Benedict, whose life has been shaped by a sense of calling and duty, chooses to interpret it differently. He is still convinced that faith has to go hand in hand with reason, as his following remark makes clear: “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 Baroque 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.”

What does this resignation mean for the Roman Catholic Church and for the world? Ratzinger’s stepping down from the prominence of the papal throne is certainly a loss. The Catholic Church and the secular world lose a profound theologian, religious and spiritual thinker, who was deeply concerned about social issues. Many will say that he was politically inept and ineffective in dealing adequately with the church’s pressing issues and scandals, such as the ordination of women and the sexual abuse cases. Yet, when the dust is settled, the general verdict will be most likely that Ratzinger always tried his best to work both for humane solutions and for the unity of the church. His greatest strength was his analysis of contemporary modern culture in light of the broad historical horizon of the classical and Judeo-Christian roots of Western culture. Whatever one may say about this pope, no one can deny him the humanistic education that enabled him to assess critically modern cultural habits and warn repeatedly against the inhuman tendencies of scientism, rationalism, and unbridled capitalism.

The world also loses a religious leader whose outlook was shaped by the personal experience of the Nazi Regime and World War II. No doubt, Benedict’s constant warning against reductive rationalism, naturalism, and the abrogation of human dignity that usually follows the denial of transcendent sources of meaning is motivated to a great extent by these events. Because Ratzinger was not afraid to point out differences between religions and worldviews, he often stirred up vehement reactions, as he did with his Regensburg address. Still, we should also not forget that he actually took Catholic-Muslim dialogue to new heights, and that a German-speaking pope who prayed at Auschwitz also had great symbolic weight for Jews.

Finally, Benedict’s resignation is also a moment of great opportunity to shift the outlook and politics of the church from Europe to those countries where Christianity is most vibrant: namely, Latin America, Africa, or China. Ratzinger was a thoroughly European thinker, whose views of culture were mostly—if not exclusively—informed by the Western cultural progression from premodern, to modern and postmodern eras. What would the encyclicals and pronouncements look like if they written by a pope from Africa or Latin America? Would there be a noticeable intellectual and cultural shift?  These are questions only the next few years will answer. Regardless of such changes, Christians should hope that the next pope would embody the spirit of Christian humanism as Benedict did while occupying such an influential office.

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