Pope Benedict’s resignation raises a host of questions that the Church has not had to face in 600 years. Among them is whether renouncing the papal office (for the reasons Benedict cites for his decision, or for others) ought to become a custom. There are weighty reasons for and against. A long papacy is in itself nothing to criticize. But the job is not obviously one that is suited now (if it ever was) to a man in a certain stage of decline. Benedict’s renunciation of the office may therefore trigger a needed discussion about the mental and physical stamina that any Pope should possess.
Another new question is the role that a living ex-Pope, or “Pope emeritus,” should play in Church affairs, not least in the selection of his own successor. No doubt some commentators will say that Benedict resigned now precisely in order to have some say over who succeeds him. That is poppycock. But the natural tendencies of the papal electors might well conspire with their esteem for Ratzinger to make it difficult for Benedict not to have some effect on their deliberations. The next Pope will in any event have to chart a new course for integrating his predecessor into the Church’s life.
The main question that Benedict’s resignation raises, however, is not at all new. It is the central question faced by the Church, and in particular the cardinal electors, whenever the Chair of Peter comes vacant. What sort of man, blessed with which ensemble of charisms, does the Church need now? One part of the answer depends on how the incumbent has understood what is often called, in this context, “the signs of the times.” Where is the ministry of Peter right now? Should the next Pope stay that course, or has there emerged a different set of priorities, calling for a different focus of the papal ministry?
It seems clear enough, for example, that Ratzinger’s own election was due partly to the electors’ desire to continue John Paul II’s work, and to their belief that Ratzinger was the right man for that job. What then lies at the heart of Benedict’s ministry? Here it seems that we might compare him to John XXIII. Most people, I am sure, would regard them as being opposites — Ratzinger was the Church’s “doctrinal watchdog,” while “good” Pope John wanted to “update” the Church, and all that. But, in fact, they are remarkably alike. Both were very aware that secularization has been a mounting tide. Both tried to shape the Church for dealing with it, not by focusing on its evils and condemning them, but by promoting a more effective proclamation of the Gospel.
In other words: The Popes since the Second Vatican Council have tried to engage the secularized world with the Gospel, and not to retreat from it in order to preserve the Gospel intact, as if it were a scroll to be buried until a new age made its reappearance safe and sensible. This policy of energetic engagement with secularism has, according to the eminent Catholic theologian Germain Grisez, not obviously succeeded or clearly failed. It remains the basic challenge of the next papacy. (Islam might be a comparable challenge for the world’s public authorities. But, for the Church’s pastors, Islam is not, and should not be treated as, much more than a partner for respectful conversations and a missionary opportunity.)
One can see Pope John XXIII’s deep faith and his desire to engage with modernity in Humanae Salutis, the apostolic constitution by which he formally convoked Vatican II on Christmas Day 1961. These same concerns animated his interventions during the Council. In my judgment, the strategy evident in that document, which is so dependent on solid faith and hope, has been the strategy of the Popes since John, perhaps especially of John Paul II but not least of all Benedict.
In attempting to understand what has transpired since Vatican II, one should not confuse those who adopted Pope John’s approach — who could be called “progressives” — with those who lacked the genuine faith and hope to proclaim the Gospel more clearly, and who thought that compromising with secularism was the way to go. These latter folks were often among the “progressives” during Vatican II. But afterwards they pursued the “spirit” of the Council, which set aside what it actually taught by advocating adaptation and syncretism — all to make the Church and its teaching more “relevant” to modern society.
Ratzinger bought into Pope John’s approach as a young theologian and adviser to Cardinal Josef Frings at Vatican II, who was one of the leaders of the progressive group at the Council; that is, he supported Pope John’s program of spirited engagement with modern secularized culture and eschewed both sectarian retreat from and a naïve adaptation to it.
Ratzinger never changed his view; he remains a true Vatican II progressive to this very day. So too should be his successor.
— Gerard V. Bradley is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.