The boy who became the pope

Thursday, 19 April, 2012

On this day in 2005, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger became Benedictus PP. XVI. Fans of the scholarly Bavarian cardinal were thrilled. He was, after all, the draughtsman of the Vatican’s crackdown on liberation theology in Latin America and the perfect intellectual partner during Pope John Paul II‘s courageous challenge to the Soviet empire.

Pope Benedict to be

And today, seven years on? There was no condemnation of Fidel Castro for his crimes during the recent Papal visit to Cuba, and the elevation of the dovish Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong suggests a less confrontational line with the autocrats in Beijing. Benedict is mellowing, perhaps, or tiring. He was 85 on Monday, a fact that makes him the oldest pope in the last 109 years, and he’ll soon be one of only six popes in the last 500 years to hold office past the age of 85.

Would that be a good thing? Giuliano Ferrara, who edits the conservative newspaper Il Foglio, has his doubts. In Le dimissioni del Papa, which appeared a month ago, Ferrara suggested that Benedict should consider retiring. To support his argument, he cited the Pontiff’s comment about resignation in Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait by Peter Seewald: “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office,” Benedict said, “then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

For Ferrara, the key word there is “spiritual“. Resignation of the Papacy is not just a matter of health; it’s a question of conscience. By stepping down, Benedict could ensure “an increase in strength and security in governance” of the Catholic Church claimed Ferrara. This could “remove every slowness, weariness, and defensive spirit from the Roman house of Peter” and give Benedict to manage his own succession.

At a time when his Papacy is weakening, Benedict might just surprise us with a dramatic move that will strengthen it.

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