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Pope Benedict XVI once declared himself a “Mozart man”, because that music contained “the whole tragedy of human existence”. It is possible to imagine the Pope’s resignation address to the assembled curial cardinals on Monday as a final aria, very personal and touching yet very lucid, to announce the end of a pontificate that contained enough drama for a whole Mozart opera. It was poignant, yet devoid of sentimentality. And it revealed an important but almost forgotten truth: that a pope could resign.

The papacy has become invested with a mysticism of its own, as if to become pope was to be elevated to a higher level of ordained ministry than that of bishop, like a unique fourth rank above the threefold sacramental ministry. By that logic, he had to die in office, precisely as his predecessor John Paul II had done so agonisingly in 2005. But if one can resign from it, it is not a sacramental status. Sacraments are indelible and irreversible.

So on 28 February at 8 p.m. local time, Pope Benedict has chosen, of his own free will, to cease to be Bishop of Rome. The world has saluted the dignity, courage and humility of a supreme act of conscience, taken after much prayer and heartsearching. He will remain in episcopal orders until he dies, assigned no doubt to some nominal see elsewhere.

Popular mythology

But he has, at a stroke, reduced the burden of the popular mythology surrounding the office that he has held with such grace and distinction, and no doubt at times with great distress and sorrow, since 19 April 2005.

He knew he was unable to discharge the functions of the office in the way the Church demanded and required; he had to make way for someone else who could. It will make a substantial difference to the way the office is perceived in future, and even opens up the possibility of a fixed retirement age – perhaps 80, the retirement age for cardinals, or even 75, that for bishops. That would be a great help in choosing his successor. Some of the mystique surrounding the papacy having been diluted in this way, space may have been cleared for the next pope to revive the concept of collegiality that was never fully realised after the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Benedict’s legacy is largely spiritual and intellectual rather than public and spectacular, like that of his predecessor.

Possibly his greatest achievement as a teacher of the faith was his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, a profound and devastating critique of the economic theories and business practices that led to the 2008 global financial crisis. Behind all his thinking lay a deep conviction that the Catholic faith, centred on Jesus Christ, was essential to the success of the whole human enterprise. Hence all attempts to design a civilisation without faith – and the Catholic faith in particular – were ultimately doomed. So faith was never something merely to be added on, to make civilisation a little more civilised.

This was a challenge to the theory behind the secularisation project on which much of the Western world had embarked – not just of Church and State as separate, but of Church having no place in the public sphere at all. His solution, that faith and reason need each other as mutual interrogators and purifiers, still awaits its vindication but is clearly right.

Benedict was unfairly blamed for the Vatican’s slow and largely misconceived response to the clerical sex-abuse crisis. Before he became Pope his efforts to combat it were obstructed by

Pope John Paul II and those around him; it was only after his election in 2005 that the Church began to turn the corner. His fierce rebuke to the Irish bishops for their negligence was an astonishing moment of truth, as were his repeated laments and apologies over this issue, during his state visit to Britain in 2010 and elsewhere. Just what had gone wrong inside the Vatican is still known by outsiders only in part, but the institution which governs the Catholic Church does seem to have become seriously unfit for purpose.

Cliques and factions

That must lie at the door of his predecessor, who allowed the growth of cliques and factions and relied too much on charisma, not enough on management skills. Pope Benedict’s abdication indicates that he knew the task of reform had become too immense and forbidding for one of his declining energy. A Church that is if anything over-centralised is in a precarious state if its central administration is at the same time seriously dysfunctional, and the integrity of the teaching office – the papacy’s primary function – is thereby compromised. There is no doubt that the obvious incompetence and negligence with which the child abuse issue was handled has seriously undermined the Church’s authority as a teacher of morals.

The changes necessary are both personal and structural. At the time of the election of John Paul I in 1978, what the Church was deemed to need was a flattened hierarchy with greater subsidiarity, and hence greater participation in shaping the future for the whole People of God, laity included. Instead, with John Paul II, it saw a Pope who seemed to imagine himself as parish priest of the whole world, and a Polish parish priest at that. There was not much room for partnership in such a vision, which had its own strengths and suited the interests of the evolving global media. But this was palpably not quite what the bishops had had in mind in the Second Vatican Council. It was scarcely collegiality, more super-ultramontanism. With Pope Benedict this was less so, and he was more the world’s spiritual director than its parish priest. He has asked the Church to rediscover the message of the council by returning to the texts, and that process may yet hold some surprises. Equally, it may show that parts of the Vatican II blueprint have already been overtaken by events, and some of its major themes may need revisiting more fundamentally. The liturgical reform inspired by Vatican II has come unstuck, at least in the English-speaking world, and progress towards church unity has almost come to a stop.

Perpetual reform

Rapprochement with the anti-Vatican II movement started by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre now seems as unlikely as unity any time soon with the Eastern Orthodox or Anglicans. Millions of Catholics, meanwhile, are out of step with church teaching on issues of sexuality. The disconnection is, if anything, becoming wider, exacerbated by the tendency to appoint conservative bishops, risk-averse and unimaginative. Faced in the West with declining numbers of clergy, they have no answers.

Vatican II declared the Church to be always in need of reform; and one of the key moments for that comes with a change of pope. It has arrived. The responsibility on the cardinals who will soon assemble in conclave, as well as on the shoulders of the man they select, is impossible to exaggerate. They need to be bold and creative.

2 | THE TABLET | 16 February 2013

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