The Mancunion

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Nobody expects the Papal Resignation

Why would the powers-that-be (no, not the Illuminati) sanction Benedict’s retirement when poor John Paul had to stick-it-out?


You may not care enough about the affairs of Vatican City to endure the brief history lesson that I have in store for you, but I promise you that it eventually gets round to one of our favourite pastimes – as progressive, liberal students – of shining a spotlight upon the imperfections of the Catholic Church. So bear with me.

In 2009 an earthquake devastated central Italy. Three-hundred people died, but one lucky survivor was Pope Celestine V. If you haven’t heard of him, that’s probably because his papacy ended in the late thirteenth century. Celestine had lain in L’Aquila for over seven-hundred years, and after the quake his remains were retrieved miraculously intact from beneath the badly-damaged Basilica Santa Maria di Collemaggio. During his tour of the most badly-damaged areas, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Basilica and prayed at Celestine’s open tomb. He even left his own inaugural pallium (Holy Pope Scarf) with Celestine as a gift.

Given his recent shock resignation from the papacy, Benedict’s actions in L’Aquila take on a certain feeling of hidden significance. Celestine himself resigned from the office in 1294 after bearing the weighty responsibilities of the Pretiosa (Pretty Pointy Pope Hat) for a mere five months. Elected in a fit of desperation, Celestine was an incredibly weak political operator, allowing himself to be constantly browbeaten. Upon realising his own ineptitude, he fled from office. Perhaps Benedict’s generous gift to the pitiable pontiff was an expression of sympathy. Was the strain of office already leading Benedict to contemplate a similar exit strategy?

This is, of course, retrospective conjecture. Nor am I any expert on the affairs of the papacy. But a comparison of Benedict’s resignation with that of previous Bishops of Rome is not only of interest to mournfully tedious history students such as myself. This line of analysis may well shed light upon the popularity of Benedict (or lack thereof) within the higher echelons of the Church.

Benedict and Celestine mark the only two pontiffs to have resigned entirely of their own accord, other than Benedict IX, who sold the papacy to his scheming godfather for a tidy sum. Other resignations are just as much in line with what we’d expect from such a hallowed office. Various Popes were ‘encouraged’ to end their reign by conniving cardinals and rebellious Anti-Popes, of which there have historically been as many as four at once. The most illuminating resignations are those that never quite got around to happening. In both the Napoleonic and Second World Wars, the sitting pontiffs signed resignation papers that would have taken effect if they were taken prisoner by the French or Nazis. But by far the most interesting almost-resignation was that of Benedict’s predecessor.

When John Paul II first donned the Sub-Cinctorium (apparently it hangs from the left arm?) he was known as the ‘keep-fit pope’, but towards the end of his papacy, after two grievous assassination attempts, he was getting rather less spry. In 2005, shortly before the Pope’s death, Telegraph reported that John Paul was also considering resignation as a result of his injuries, recent illnesses, and his ‘debilitating Parkinson’s disease and arthritis’. His Last Will and Testament reveals that this prospect had occurred to him as early as the year 2000. But John Paul remained the pontiff until his death. Either his devotion to the almighty outweighed his own concerns about his health, or those concerns were overridden by the Roman Curia. In canon law, incapacitation and poor health are not grounds for electing a new Pope, and it seems that the highest echelons of the Church wanted to keep John Paul in place.

Does it not then seem strange that the keepers of canon law have been so quick to allow this most recent resignation? Why exactly would the powers-that-be (no, not the Illuminati) sanction Benedict’s retirement on grounds of poor health, when John Paul had to stick-it-out in arguably worse condition?

The Vatican has historically had no shortage of shrewd political operators, so perhaps we should consider the political advantages of showing Benedict the door. John Paul II was himself a figure of controversy, but Benedict seemed to take over the helm of Christendom at a particularly bad time to be a lynchpin of extreme social conservatism. The first rumblings of the Catholic sex abuse scandal occurred during John Paul’s papacy, but the brunt of the debacle has been on Benedict’s watch. And as western gender politics steamroll further and further from the dictations of the Church, Benedict must issue denunciations and veiled attacks that are more and more poorly received by the majority of the general public. It is difficult for the average, casually-atheist supporter of not-stoning-the-LGBTQ-community-to-death to watch footage of Benedict without seeing a figure steeped in fairly unfashionable social attitudes. Perhaps, when he resumes his former identity as the mild-mannered Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican can appoint someone else to wear the Papal Slippers (no really) who meets with something more than disinterested disapproval from those outside his flock.