Shepherd at Rest
Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his resignation. It had not been done since the 15th century. In retrospect, though, the signs were always there: He had several times tried to leave the Vatican for the academic life but been dissuaded by John Paul II, and almost as soon as he became pope he started saying that it might be permissible and even obligatory for a pope to step down if he could no longer handle the role. Whatever else may be said of his decision — and faithful Catholics will disagree among themselves about its wisdom — it cannot be said that this was a man who clung to position.
When Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 264th successor to St. Peter in 2005, he was taking the place of a man who was quite possibly the most popular pope in history, Blessed John Paul II. To his credit, Pope Benedict has never tried to be a man he is not. Where his predecessor exuded charisma and warmth, Benedict has always been retiring and soft-spoken. He has nonetheless also been firm where required, as in dealing with what he long called the “filth” in the Church exposed by the sex-abuse scandals.
Behind the mild-mannered demeanor is, indeed, one of the most incisive and courageous intellects of our time. The greatest legacy of this papacy, and the thing for which we hope it is most remembered, has been the clarity with which Pope Benedict has diagnosed the deep spiritual and cultural malaise of the West, what he calls “the dictatorship of relativism.” It is a phrase that seems paradoxical only because it is a description of an incoherence. This pope has argued, repeatedly and convincingly, that human beings are capable of knowing, however imperfectly, certain unchanging truths about human existence. His defense of both faith and reason against the cynicism and skepticism of postmodernity reinforces truths without which a free society such as ours — which is dedicated to just such truths — cannot flourish. The Catholic Church is, for example, the chief institutional carrier of the great truth that all human beings, whatever their station or age or abilities or condition of dependence, have inherent dignity and a right to life. That is one of many reasons that even non-Catholics have an interest in the continuing health of the Church, and can wish a peaceful retirement for Benedict and success for the next occupant of his chair.