Politics & Policy

The Papal Resignation

Background and consequences of the still-stunning news

On Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his last public Mass as pope. It was an emotional moment in St. Peter’s Basilica, as the world continued to process the announcement and the Vatican made plans for the coming conclave to name a new pontiff. Father John Jay Hughes is a Church historian and priest of the St. Louis archdiocese, and author of the memoir No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace. A former student of Joseph Ratzinger, he helps make sense of the news and what’s to come this Lent.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Who is this man, Joseph Ratzinger, and what is he doing stepping aside as pope? 

FR. JOHN JAY HUGHES: Born April 16, 1927, as the second the son of a Francophile local policeman whose hatred of Nazism moved him to take premature retirement early in Hitler’s reign, Joseph Ratzinger grew up in a deeply pious Bavarian family. In his youth he became fascinated with the then-universal Latin and largely silent Mass, which he followed with growing interest in his Latin-German Missal. Drafted, like all German teenagers, into the Hitler Youth, Joseph found a sympathetic teacher who marked him “present” in the compulsory indoctrination classes, though he never attended. During World War II, this “most unmilitary of men,” as he describes himself in his only autobiographical work, Milestones, was forced to serve in an anti-aircraft unit. At war’s end, he simply walked away and tramped home on foot, luckier than other deserters whom he found hanged on wayside trees by Nazis still loyal to their Führer.

Soon joined by his older brother, Georg, back from military service in Italy and “brown from the Italian sun,” he embarked with him on theological study in Munich. Ratzinger records the aversion he and his classmates felt for the neo-scholastic theological manuals then in use, where they found everything labeled and mysteries reduced to formulas. “We were seekers,” he writes, explaining his early preference for the theology of St. Augustine over that of St. Thomas Aquinas (as presented in contemporary manuals for seminarians). Ratzinger’s thesis on the themes of the people and house of God in Augustine’s theology so impressed the faculty that they awarded him a doctorate in theology. Ordained priest with his brother Georg, Joseph served briefly in a parish before returning to academic study, culminating in a Habilitation (a kind of second doctorate qualifying the recipient for a professorial chair) on the reception of divine revelation in the theology of the medieval Franciscan St. Bonaventure.

Ratzinger taught successively at the German universities of Bonn, Münster, and Tübingen (where he was recruited by Hans Küng), and also the (then small and new) University of Regensburg. He served during all four sessions of Vatican II (196265) as theological adviser to the almost blind Cardinal Frings of Cologne, whose silvery, clear Latin diction endeared him to the Council Fathers. Wags said that Frings had listened to so much of Ratzinger’s theology that he had forgotten most of what he had learned in seminary.

In early 1977, Ratzinger was surprised by a visit from the Pope’s nuncio to Germany, who handed him a confidential letter from Pope Paul VI asking him to be archbishop of Munich. Though deeply loath to leave his university teaching and research, Ratzinger accepted on the advice of a colleague (who, Ratzinger had expected, would counsel refusal) and was ordained bishop on May 28, 1977, just six weeks past his 50th birthday. Bestowal of the cardinal’s hat followed at once.


LOPEZ: What do you remember best of him?

HUGHES: I first encountered Joseph Ratzinger shortly after Easter 1965, when I began my studies for the German Dr. theol. at the University of Münster, the capital of Westphalia, in northern Germany — a part of that country then still so deeply imbued with the ancient faith that its citizens were reputed to say: “We don’t care what they do down there in Rome. We’re staying Catholic.”

Ratzinger, then just 38, was professor of fundamental theology in the Catholic Theological Faculty. He was a modest and shy man; we used to see him riding around town on an ancient bicycle, wearing a beret. A native of Bavaria in southern Germany, he was widely reported to have said: “The best thing about Münster is the railway ticket to Munich [Bavaria’s capital].” I had difficulty sympathizing with that. I was more than 3,000 miles from my home and having a ball. Surely, I thought, a man who lived in the world of ideas should be able to feel at home anywhere.

Any negative thoughts quickly vanished, however, once I encountered Professor Ratzinger in the university lecture hall. He lectured three times a week at 8 a.m. C.T., a German university abbreviation meaning cum tempore — that is, at 8:15. The lectures were beyond question the most riveting, and the most beautiful, of any I ever heard, on any subject, at any of the three universities where I have studied. After each lecture one wanted to go into a church and pray. “He speaks print-ripe,” the German students used to say. You could have made a tape recording of the lectures and printed them just as spoken, with hardly a correction. Ratzinger’s hearers regularly included people from the town, who came to hear him before they went to work in their places of employment.

Among the hearers was a Protestant student from South Africa. “He’ll convert,” the German students predicted confidently. “Bei Ratzinger fällt der stärkste Mann um.” [Literally: “By Ratzinger falls the strongest man over.”] That was a student jest, of course. But a quarter of a century later, it proved true, when the German journalist Peter Seewald produced the first of several books containing the transcript of tape-recorded conversations with then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Though raised as a Catholic, Seewald soon abandoned Christian faith to become an atheistic Communist. He returned to the practice of his childhood faith as a result of his first tape-recorded conversations with Ratzinger.

The lectures were interlarded with frequent citations from the Church Fathers, especially from Augustine. I soon realized that I was listening to a theologian who spoke from within Church tradition — not the narrow, legalistic tradition of what the Jesuit John O’Malley has aptly called “the long 19th century” (it lasted right up to Vatican II), a version of the faith that kept me out of the Church for years, and that is still fiercely insisted on by the Brotherhood of St. Pius X. Ratzinger spoke from within the far broader and deeper tradition of two millennia.


LOPEZ: How will history come to understand him?

FR. HUGHES: A modest and shy man, unaccustomed to living in the public eye, Ratzinger, though invariably friendly and welcoming, lacked the common touch expected of a bishop. After he had spent less than five years in Munich, the new Pope, John Paul II, called him to Rome to be prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His assigned role as a kind of doctrinal policeman earned him the media labels of “panzer cardinal” and “God’s rottweiler”  both of them gross misrepresentations of his true character, which is manifest from a passage in his sermon at his ordination as a bishop: “All of us long for a Pentecostal Church: a Church in which the Spirit rules, and not the letter; a Church in which understanding breaks down the fences we erect against each other. We are impatient with a Church that seems so unpentecostal, so unspiritual, so narrow, and so fearful.” This theme would be frequently reiterated in his constant repetition of the theme of “joy” in his preaching and addresses as Pope, and in his encyclical “God Is Love” and its companion, “Saved in Hope.”


LOPEZ: Were you surprised by the resignation?

FR. HUGHES: He has stunned the world with his announcement. The position is so burdensome that, even though he’s still in good physical and mental health despite his almost 86 years, he no longer feels able to fulfill what the Church expects from its Chief Shepherd. The humility and courage that this decision manifests will surely enhance his personal stature in history’s judgment.


LOPEZ: What now? What are the conclave considerations?

FR. HUGHES: The cardinals under the age of 80 will gather in mid-March to choose Pope Benedict’s successor. Prominent in their thinking will surely be the need to find a man capable of cleaning up the administrative mess in the Vatican evident in the “Vatileaks” affair: the publication of the Pope’s most confidential communications from and to his closest associates. The small commission of elderly cardinals appointed by Benedict to investigate the leaks recently gave him the names of those ultimately responsible (the pope’s butler was only their pawn): perhaps just two highly placed individuals, likely cardinals.

One questions whether any of the widely touted Third World papal candidates would be equal to this task. Over the centuries, the Italians have developed intrigue into a fine art. The urgently necessary reform of the Roman Curia (comparable to the cabinet ministries of a modern government) requires a man already familiar with the system. Cardinals Scola of Milan (formerly of Venice) and the polyglot Cardinal Ouellet from Quebec (now head of the Congregation for Bishops) come at once to mind.


LOPEZ: What if the cardinals mess this up?

FR. HUGHES: Can we be confident that the cardinals will get it right? Church history does not support a positive answer. Over the centuries (though happily not in modern times), there have been many bad popes. This explains how the early-20th-century English Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc, could call the Catholic Church “an institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God, it would not last a fortnight.”

The promised assistance of the Holy Spirit is present in the choice of all bishops, including Popes as Bishops of Rome. The Spirit’s role, however, is not to guarantee the right choice, but to prevent total disaster once the choice (itself the communal act of fallible human beings, however well intentioned) has been made.


LOPEZ: Why is the decision about who should be Bishop of Rome reserved to cardinals?

FR. HUGHES: Because they are, in Church law, Rome’s parish clergy. There are three orders of cardinals. The cardinal deacons are the successors of the important administrative officials in Rome’s ancient Church structure — many of whom, in the early centuries, were chosen as Pope and immediately ordained bishops without ever having been priests. Most of the cardinals are “cardinal priests.” Each is legally the pastor of a parish in Rome, even if (as in most cases) his real responsibility is shepherding a diocese elsewhere. Then there are the seven “cardinal bishops,” chief shepherds of the small “suburbicarian” dioceses surrounding the city of Rome.


LOPEZ: What does this mean for Lent? Is it a distraction, as at least one TV host described it this week?

FR. HUGHES: Preaching at Mass on Ash Wednesday, I suggested that if those present wished to take on something “extra” for Lent, rather than “giving something up,” they might well resolve to pray daily: “Lord, bless Pope Benedict, and give us a good new Holy Father.” One thing I told them is certain: None of us now living will ever experience a Lent like this one.

 Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


The Latest