Former Pope Benedict XVI, who lurked in the shadows of the Vatican for nine years after his abdication, has died.
In the eyes of some historians it was his resignation, not his reign, that was important.
For one thing, it made it harder to look upon Joseph Ratzinger as a hide-bound traditionalist. There was nothing traditional about spurning two millennia of custom that requires the successor of Peter to hang around the throne until God calls him home.
And while his decision to quit was not unprecedented – Pope Gregory XII quit under intense political pressure in 1415—his departure may be the first prompted by ordinary human frailty.
Facing one’s encroaching infirmities requires courage and wisdom that is not often seen in monarchs, potentates, or popes. More typically, the late Queen Elizabeth II of Britain attended to her daily duties two days before her death. In contrast, Benedict’s decision to lay down the Petrine miter while he still lived may constitute his greatest and most radical contribution to the church.
He had, in a sense, liberated all his successors and other powerful leaders from the excruciating bondage to duty that compels them to endure weakness and pain until their last agonized breath.
He had, indeed, born testimony to a truth many popes, bishops, pastors, rabbis, and imams cannot face: that no one is irreplaceable; that the world will go on without you; that God will find other people and other means to get the job done.
In that sense, Benedict XVI has changed the church and other religious institutions forever. We wouldn’t have expected that kind of change from Joseph Ratzinger, but we will always be in his debt.
For many Protestant ecumenists, including me, Benedict’s extreme act prompted a reappraisal of his personality and reign.
He was not the soul of ecumenical or interfaith cooperation. He referred to the Roman Catholic Church as the “true” church and declared all others as “deficient.”
Yet he welcomed Orthodox patriarchs, rabbis, and ecumenical activists to the Vatican. Early in his reign, he hosted former World Council of Churches General Secretary Sam Kobia, a Kenyan Methodist, and they clearly enjoyed each other’s company. The resulting photograph prompted Protestants to repeat an old joke: “Who’s the guy up there with Sam?” It was a sign that Benedict could be, if not entirely open minded, then disarmingly polite.
Even so, I must confess, there are things about His Holiness that chill the cockles of my Lutheran heart.
He turned his back on the ordination of women as priests, despite the experience of Protestant churches that women match and often exceed the skills of men as pastors, bishops and primates. And despite the fact that the Holy Spirit continues to call women to pastoral ministries within the Catholic Church and elsewhere.
He supported a church investigation of nuns for straying from church doctrine and seemed indulgent of the ancient old boy network that gives the ultimate power to define doctrine entirely to men.
Too, Benedict carried the burden of presiding over a church contaminated by the “filth” – his word – of clergy sexual abuse of children. He apologized to victims for the abuse they suffered, but carried in his heart the memory that as a cardinal, he, too, protected an abusive priest.
No one knows better than Benedict XVI what St. Paul said about sin: everyone does it. Everyone falls short of God’s glory.
To his critics, Benedict was a sinner like everyone else, working out his salvation in fear and trembling.
But, like all us sinners, he was also capable of great grace and great wisdom.
And his grace is what we remember on the day of his death.