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Benedict Resigns – Why are you surprised?

POPE POSES IN LANDSCAPE OF NORTHERN ITALYI saw the facebook comments first, before the news: “wow,” “unexpected,” “shocked,” “surprised.” One priest went so far as to say the pope had broken his heart.

Why are you surprised?

He told us he was going to resign if his health or abilities failed, when he was elected, and again just a couple years ago:

‘‘If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign,’’ Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World, 2010

He, better than most, knows the effect on the church and the Roman curia by the long, lingering illness of a bishop of Rome.

He is 85, and his pontificate has been nearly 8 years – almost exactly the length of the average pontificate over the last 2000 years.

He is a better theologian than any pope we have had in centuries, and knows well that, like all bishops, he can resign. And like all bishops, you do the same thing with a retired pope that you do with a retired bishop – it is not such a problem.

He knows the history of the papacy, that includes some obvious cases of papal resignation (St. Pontian, Benedict IX, Gregory VI, Clement V, Gregory XII), and several others who have been removed. Nearly 10% of all popes did not serve until death, if I remember correctly.

He is also an unquestionable champion of Catholic identity, culture and orthodoxy, so no one can claim that only a “liberal” or “reformer” pope would do this, as Paul VI had contemplated doing during his pontificate.

And above all he is a man of integrity and courage, who has done what is right in the face of pressure to simply conform to unrealistic expectations. He is not resigning because of disgrace or failure, he is retiring because it is the right thing to do for the Church, and for himself.

I think I have never been so proud of a pope in a lifetime of loving the Church.



  1. Dennis Doyle says:

    This is an intelligent commentary. I think it could be balanced by a recognition of and appreciation for the kind of “culture shock” that the pope’s announcement has caused. Yes, his resignation makes sense and could be anticipated from several angles. Still, in the deep Catholic culture there is this expectation that a pope will hang in there until he dies. Bravo for the pope to go against this expectation. But a change in a culture in which this hasn’t happened in many centuries will still take some getting used to.

    • A.J. Boyd says:

      Thanks, Dennis, for the kind words. You are right, and I’ve had a similar thought, on another brief post addressing the culture shock, before i settle in to some more serious work. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your thoughts in the days to come, too!

  2. Michelle says:

    Thanks for this commentary AJ.

  3. Jrock says:

    I think what is surprising is that the ’cause’ for resigning is the health problems. We all well remember John Paul II, who despite his poor health conditions, continued to serve and inspire (not only Chirstians) around the world until his death. That is the epitome for a real Pope, at least for a non-Christian like me. Pope Bendict – an epitome for fashion in the Vatican, odd aliances during the Holocaust and support for radical Christian groups.

    May he get well soon, if he’s not feeling well.

    • A.J. Boyd says:

      Jrock, many voices criticized John Paul II for holding onto an office he could no longer effectively exercise, for nearly a decade. There was argument for his witness as a suffering being – rather than in terms of efficiency and effectiveness – but the papacy is an office not a person, a ministry, not a power. Could he have given the same witness as a bishop emeritus, showing suffering with dignity, without allowing an administrative chaos? Perhaps Benedict, having lived through that up close, did not want to get near the same place at all.

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