Pope Benedict XVI is the latest of a small number of popes to resign the chair of St. Peter. The most famous of these — the one whose resignation had all the earmarks of an abdication — was Pietro del Morrone, Pope Celestine V, the saintly Benedictine hermit who resigned in 1294 after only a few months, realizing that he was called to serve his church through prayer and penance rather than bitter politics and gorgeous, endless public ceremonies.
It was a decision Benedict honored. In July 2010 he attended the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Celestine’s birth in Sulmona, Italy, and spoke of this medieval pontiff’s capacity for inner silence and “vivid experience of the beauty of creation.”
The previous year, while visiting the same region after a devastating earthquake, Benedict placed his pallium — the narrow band of wool with which he was invested at his inauguration — over the case containing Celestine’s remains, and left it behind. It was a significant foreshadowing of the moment when he too would resign and, like Celestine, face the uncertain verdict of history.
It cannot have escaped Benedict’s notice that, according to a traditional (though debatable) interpretation of “The Inferno,” Pope Celestine is the figure Dante met in the vestibule to hell: “I saw and recognized the shade of one who, through cowardice, made the great refusal.” Anyone who has this job can expect to be misunderstood.
Chief among the misunderstandings of Benedict’s pontificate are those that cluster around the unhelpful label of “conservative.” He is far too astute a scholar and too modern a churchman for such a label to be of much use. Unfortunately, one still hears him accused of turning the clock back on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, thwarting the liturgical renewal it mandated and keeping the laity firmly in its place — an impression that would not survive a careful reading of his papal documents alongside the actual texts of the council. In fact, under Benedict’s leadership, the celebration of Mass, the “source and summit” of Catholic life, has begun to mirror more faithfully the reforms that the Second Vatican Council intended. Beauty is back in season, and millions of Catholics around the world are embracing this change with gratitude.
For the intellectuals of many faiths who admire him, Benedict is a profound religious thinker in the Augustinian tradition according to which the longing for truth is innate and universal and the various disciplines of philosophy, theology and the natural sciences all have as their ultimate aim a personal union with truth. With his distinctly nonfundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis; his sophisticated handling of recent trends in biblical criticism (most notably, though least noticed, his book “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life”); his role in the creation of the modern Catholic catechism; and his papal writings on faith, reason and love (beginning with his extraordinary first encyclical “God Is Love”), Pope Benedict has opened a new era in the dialogue between religion and secular reason.
His errors, of course, have been amply recorded. Less attention has been given to his efforts to make amends. The speech he made in 2006 at the University of Regensburg was a public relations disaster: one wonders how, in the midst of a deeply thoughtful reflection on faith and reason, he failed to foresee the damage he would cause by quoting, without evaluation, the Islamophobic remarks of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor. The upshot of the resulting debate, though, was an improvement in Catholic-Muslim relations, for which Pope Benedict deserves some credit. His critique of New Age versions of Buddhism as narcissistic was poorly phrased, and instantly misunderstood; yet even this gaffe provided an occasion for fruitful dialogue.
He was willing to allow that condoms might have value in preventing the transmission of H.I.V. in Africa. And where bioethics and sexual ethics are concerned, he has sought to clarify the consistent rationale of Catholic teaching, to defend the dignity of the human person, and to carry on the version of feminism that one associates with John Paul II.
Pope Benedict’s announcement that he is retiring — made on the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, the World Day of the Sick, on the threshold of an early Lent — was his “Nunc dimittis,” his “I will diminish,” his final summons to a weary church to look beyond politics and the calculus of power, and to recover its real sources of renewal. Even the “spiritual but not religious” set might be intrigued by a pope who, by resigning his position, admits not only his own frailty but that of the throne on which he has been seated. What I see in Pope Benedict XVI is not the shade of one who through cowardice made the great refusal, but the substance of one who through humility and wisdom made the great acceptance.
Carol Zaleski is a professor of world religions at Smith College.