Pope Benedict XVI stunned everyone when he announced that he would resign the position on February 28th; even the Vatican was surprised. This will be the first time a pope has resigned in centuries, and it begs the question as to why someone would give up their divine calling. It may be that, for someone so steeped in theological conservatism, the challenges of the changing world have proven too tough to tackle.
Addressing a regular meeting of cardinals, the pope waited until the end of the meeting to make his big announcement, stating, “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern… both strength of mind and body are necessary.” However, every pope for nearly 600 years has faced the same issue of upholding the responsibilities of the office until their death.
During his papacy, Benedict was charged by many as being complicit in a conspiracy covering up, or, at the very least, failing to take a stand against, the sexual molestation of countless children. The child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church has come to light in full force over the past several years, with over $3 billion in major settlements in the U.S. alone.
As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005. The Pope has faced allegations that, while he served as archbishop in Germany, he failed to take any action in cases of reported child abuse. In a Wisconsin case in 1996, a priest who worked at a school for deaf children molested at least 200 deaf boys, and while bishops reported the case to the Vatican office, no response ever came. Though the second in command under Ratzinger (Cardinal Bertone) took over the case and told Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial for the accused priest, Bertone halted the process after the accused priest wrote a letter to Ratzinger asking not to be put on trial due to his poor health and a claim that the potential case was past the statute of limitations. In this and other cases, rather than being defrocked or put on trial, priests were simply relocated and shielded by the church in order to avoid a scandal.
The last pope to “resign” from the papacy did so in the midst of great political turmoil: the Great Western Schism in 1415. In today’s world, the church faces push-back for centuries of abuses against children, support for family planning and wide-spread use of birth control among Catholic women, and widespread advocacy for gay rights. Perhaps the fact that the leader of the Catholic Church has made such a drastic and unprecedented decision indicates that the world is becoming less conservative, and that the Catholic Church may have to make some changes to accommodate it.
Alisha Mims is a writer and researcher for Ring of Fire.