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Pope Benedict’s retirement

15 February 2013

WHEN Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope at the age of 78, it was not assumed that he would have a long pontificate. Some commentators predicted that, as a consequence, the new Pope would act quickly, eager to make his mark in the time that he had. Pope Benedict XVI, however, has never given the impression of being a man in a hurry. His actions have tended towards conservation and restoration. Where he has reformed, it has been largely to re-assert the value of past norms: a welcoming back into the fold of the Tridentinists, a restrained liturgy, Friday abstinence, and so on. He wisely declined to copy the popularism of his predecessor, John Paul II; but, perhaps because of his stylishness or his grandfatherly demeanour, he has attracted respect and affection from many of his flock, as his visit to Britain showed in 2010.

His preferred field of action, however, has been out of the public eye, and, as the result of eight years of episcopal appointments, he bequeaths to his successor a much more conservative Church even than he inherited. On one level, this was to be expected, given his former reputation as the papal enforcer; but, on another, it seems at odds with some of the openness seen in his writings. His admiration for Lord Williams when the latter was Archbishop of Canterbury is just one example of how a personal warmth failed to be translated into practical action. The jury remains out on the Ordinariate, but from this distance Pope Benedict seems to have been ill-advised, and careless of the consequences for Anglicanism and Anglican-Roman Catholic relations in his quest to enlarge the barque of St Peter. Also to be expected was the lack of any softening of the Vatican line on sexual ethics and the position of women in the Church. As a result, however, the gap between official teaching and what many ordinary Roman Catholics (let alone the public at large) believe and practise remains as wide as it ever was.

Any attempt to set an agenda for his papacy was swamped by the revelations of the sexual abuse of children, and institutional cover-ups. The exposure has depressed the faithful, discouraged enquirers, and cast a pall of suspicion over every priest. It has also undermined the authority of the Pope himself, even when he has made intelligent contributions to debates on such matters as materialism and interfaith dialogue.

It is no reflection on his time in office that the nature of his going is likely to be his most notable legacy. Although abdication from the see of Rome is not unprecedented, the papal claims have been significantly enlarged in the past six centuries. Benedict XVI's retirement may do something to let some daylight in on the magic, refocusing attention on the office rather than the person. He has raised the question of efficiency. In future, old age might not be the only grounds on which it seems natural for a pope to abdicate.

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