Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s personal decision to renounce the papal role has given the world outside of the Vatican walls a fleeting glimpse of the person beneath the weight of the triple-tiara and the burden of papal duty. A first in 600 years, Joseph Ratzinger’s resignation demonstrates an expression of personal liberty within a church afflicted by sexual abuse scandals and increasing secularism. This radical conclusion of Ratzinger’s tenancy as the bishop of Rome and leader of the Roman Catholic Church has given rise to questions of individualism and personal choice in specific doctrines of the church where such convictions lack. Ratzinger has built a stage on which the future trajectory of the world’s largest faith will be played out.
The late John Paul II’s acclaimed papacy demonstrates a love for theater within the papal role. Where Benedict was a quiet academic and theologian, his predecessor was something of a diplomatic celebrity — images of the late pope kissing the earth of more than a hundred countries are sure to decorate the memories of devoted Catholics more lavishly than Benedict’s more muted gestures. Doubtlessly, John Paul II enjoyed immense popularity during his papacy — his funeral was attended by over four million people and was the largest gathering of any statesman in history. This popularity, however, was merely superficial — and as this appearance faded, the church and the pope who followed John Paul II were haunted by the re-emerged ghosts of sexual abuse and corruption.
Despite the contrast that are often drawn between the last two popes, these two men were far more similar than different. In the absence of an engaging persona or unusual appearance, the reactionary politics that the two men shared became all too obvious — and ardent criticism quickly replaced popularity. Not at all a spectacle of theatrics, Ratzinger’s papacy laid bare the different doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and in doing so exposed them to popular criticism. The denial of personal choice in matters of contraception, abortion, divorce, marriage, suicide and sex portrayed a church that had become increasingly at odds with a world concerned with the liberty of individuals. This contention has exposed a need to recognize the utility of personal choice within the teachings of the church — a need that church leaders in the United States and elsewhere are beginning to recognize.
Upon electing Ratzinger as the new pope, the cardinals praised him as an intellectual and claimed he had shown the compatibility of reason and faith. By resigning, Ratzinger came close to making this claim true. In seeing no reason to remain in office while his health and strength receded, and making the personal decision to act upon this realization, he did much more for the faith than his glamorous predecessor could have hoped to do.
Understanding the importance of personal choice for the individual beneath the triple-tiara could lead to recognition of its importance elsewhere within the Roman Catholic Church.
Peter Keffer is a foreign correspondant. Email him at [email protected]