Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | February 11, 2013

Roundup of Reactions and Comments on Pope Benedict’s Resignation

So! Benedict XVI has announced that he will be resigning as Pope effective February 28 of this year.


Pope Benedict XVI

Andrew Sullivan has a helpful collection of quick reactions at The Dish. It’s a good place to start. See also some of Sullivan’s more extended thoughts here.

Vladimir Putin in the Vatican City 13 March 2007-4

Pope Benedict with Vladimir Putin, Vatican City, March 2007

Dan Drezner asks and answers the question, “Why should we care?” (Or, “Why do we care?”) He offers three good reasons:

Well, one obvious reason is that Catholicism still commands a fair number of adherents. According to the CIA World Factbook, close to 17% of the world’s population is Catholic. It’s the largest denomination in Christendom. Only Muslims have more adherents, but that’s deceptive since the CIA combines Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. From an international relations perspective, if power equals numbers, there appears to be a tripolar distribution of religious adherents between Catholics, Hindus, and Sunni Muslims.

Another source of influence is the Catholic Church’s long tradition and legacy. If the Church is merely one of many now, back in its prime it was Europe’s religious and secular superpower, which leads to all kinds of legacy effects. Britain and France are still on the U.N. Security Council because they were great powers back in the day, for example. The same applies to the Catholic Church. Benedict XVI’s resignation was noteworthy in that only four other popes have resigned in the past millennium — and each of those cases comes with quite a story. So tradition can create lasting legacies of power as well.

Still, I’d argue that the biggest reason the Pope matters from a power perspective is that, simply put, the Catholic Church is the most centralized religious organization in human history. — hell, save the Communist Party, it might be the most centralized organization period. With such a structure, it matters cruicially who heads it. In contrast, the other major religions do not have anything close to the church bureaucracy or organizational resoirces.

For some background, see this story in the Washington Post about the last four popes who have resigned. (H/T: Drezner.) See also the article on “Abdication” in the old (1907-11) Catholic Encyclopedia. (Historical factoid I did not know before today: “Pope Pius VII (1800-23), before setting out for Paris to crown Napoleon in 1804, had signed an abdication of the papal throne to take effect in case he were imprisoned in France.”)

Jacques-Louis David 018

Pius VII, crafty fox

Paul Musgrave at Duck of Minerva has an informative and wonky post summarizing and linking to a good deal of social science literature about papal conclaves. Definitely worth reading.

Pope Benedict is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years. His resignation is important simply for (re)establishing the norm that a pope can legally and practically resign. They don’t all have to linger on in poor health like John Paul II (or diminished mental capacity, as was rumored of Leo XIII a century ago).

So I agree with Prof. Bainbridge that Pope Benedict’s resignation “may be the bravest thing he’s done in office.” He adds*:

The Catholic Church faces crises that require action: The Vatican Bank scandal, the ongoing fallout from the pedophile priest scandal, declining numbers of priests, and the secularization of Europe. The Church could not afford another lengthy period of inaction and indecision while waiting for a dying Pope to pass away. It needed a younger man. Now.

Pope Benedict thus had the vision and moral courage that John Paul II lacked. While I still regard JPII as the greatest Pope of my lifetime and possibly for much further back than that, he had flaws and clinging to office when he was obviously incapable of performing the tasks was one. His great example of emulating the Suffering Servant easily could have performed in retirement, while a younger man tackled the crises of the day instead of allowing them to fester through the last years of JPII’s reign.

Megan McArdle also thinks that the Pope has made “a good decision, and a worthy one”: “The Pope recognized that he was too frail to continue performing his duties as the spiritual leader of his church, and he stepped down so that the Church could elect someone who can.” Prof. Althouse wonders if elderly politicians (and others, like some Supreme Court justices) should follow the Pope’s example and step down before the biological statute of limitation takes effect.** (I would be happy for more elderly politicians to take heed, but I am not hopeful.) For a contrasting view, see Andrew Roberts, who compares Pope Benedict’s decision unfavorably to the actions of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.


Pope Benedict, in Brazil, 2007

Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress has a surprising summary of Benedict’s record in advancing certain progressive causes. (Volsky’s commenters are another matter.)

Finally, Jason Kuznicki at the League has a post about the tired old hype around the so-called prophecies of Pseudo-Malachy. Supposedly, according to Pseudo-Malachy, Benedict XVI is the next-to-last pope before the Apocalypse. If the world doesn’t end, people will presumably take notice: “You can’t fudge stuff like that, which means that pseudo-Malachy’s next prediction is at long last subject to falsification, the scientific process whereby bunkum is eliminated.” Hopefully, after this next pope, we can consign this particular meme to oblivion as a falsified prophecy.

20080416 Benedict XVI George W Bush birthday

Pseudo-Malachy will be consigned to the same miry cistern as the prediction about every U.S. President elected in a year ending in zero dying in office. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both had the effrontery to live.

* I think I would endorse most, but not all, of Prof. Bainbridge’s commentary. I would have to think on it.
** Decades ago, Justice Byron White, in a letter to his colleagues on the Court, mused that the Framers should have included an upper age limit for Supreme Court justices. He made this point during a period near the end of Justice William O. Douglas’ time on the Court, when Douglas was visibly failing.

Image Credits: (1) Pope Benedict, May 2010, by Catholic Church (England and Wales) [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0], via Flickr; (2) Kremlin [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; (3) Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Pope Pius VII, 1805, via Wikimedia Commons; (4) Photo by Fabio Pozzebom, Agência Brasil, May 10, 2007, used under the Creative Commons License Attribution 3.0 Brazil [CC BY 3.0 BR], via Wikimedia Commons; (5) Photo by Eric Draper, White House Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons.


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