Although there is sadness at his leaving, there are a number of reasons to appreciate the action that Pope Benedict XVI has taken in resigning the papacy. As I noted in the last post, Pope Benedict has broken a longstanding custom that popes serve until death. In so doing, he has provided one way for declining popes to avoid a situation where the Church must attempt to cope with a pope who becomes unable to function in his office. Further, as Vincent J. Miller points out in this post on America’s “In All Things” blog, Pope Benedict’s resignation is itself an act of teaching—a humble recognition that even the Pope functions under constraints of history and of his own humanity. As Jack Hunt commented on Miller’s post, now we can see the papacy more clearly as a ministry rather than as some kind of monarchy.
This was a courageous move, and not only because it was a break with custom. For in resigning his office, Pope Benedict dared to brave the specter of Dante Alighieri himself. In the third canto of Inferno, the pilgrim Dante and his guide Virgil pass through the fearsome gate of hell into a place of darkness, noise and tumult. Here, Virgil reveals, are “the wretched souls of those who lived/ without disgrace yet without praise.” [Hollander trans.] No one here is named—“the world does not permit report of them,” Virgil sneers—but Dante notes that among them is “the shade of him/ who, through cowardice, made the great refusal.”
Most of the early commentators on the poem saw this as a reference to Pope Celestine V, a simple hermit who was drafted into the papacy in 1294. Overwhelmed by the office and the ecclesiastical and political intrigues that surrounded it, he resigned after only a few months. His resignation paved the way for Benedetto Caetani, a pope whom Dante detested, to begin his reign as Pope Boniface VIII.
It is easy to imagine that any pope—and particularly an Italian pope!—who considered resignation would be daunted by Dante’s imagined postmortem disdain. Perhaps it took a German pope—and one with courage and a strong sense of himself—to take that step.
Although these thoughts came to me almost as soon as I heard of Pope Benedict’s decision, I am grateful to my wife, Maureen O’Brien, for pointing out another post on the America site in which Fr. Drew Christiansen recounts that Pope Benedict had visited Celestine’s tomb in Aquila, Italy, on more than one occasion. Perhaps, Fr. Christiansen wonders, these pilgrimages can now be seen as occasions when Pope Benedict pursued the prayerful discernment that led to his decision to resign.