Since the lava flow of media commentaries about Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation began nearly two weeks ago, dozens of people have asked me why the Holy Father “really” resigned, and who the next pope is likely to be.
Given the extraordinary nature of the event, both questions are inevitable. Happily, Benedict’s reasoning has been simple and clear. The church faces serious challenges worldwide. At 85, his declining health and energy impede his ability to serve the church as effectively as she needs. Resignation is an act of unusual humility as well as careful judgment. These qualities, along with his courage, have distinguished his entire priestly life. By this action, Benedict also reminds us that, despite the unique authority invested in the Petrine office, the pope is first and finally the bishop of Rome — and bishops do grow old and retire to private life everywhere else in the world.
Who will be the next pope? Nobody knows, and though speculating about the future can be a pleasant form of entertainment, it’s also fruitless. Pundits don’t vote. Special-interest lobbying in the media has little or no effect.
Catholic teaching develops over time, but it doesn’t fundamentally change; and Catholic life, in the end, is ordered to truth, not consensus or polling. Baptism is more than a Catholic tribal ritual. It matters — now and into eternity. And faith is not a religious clubhouse; it’s meant to be lived actively, consciously, radically. It has adult implications. As St. Paul reminds us, we have a duty to “speak the truth in love.” Truth unguided by mercy and love becomes a special kind of cruelty. Love unguided by a passion for truth about the nature of the human person, human relationships, and human dignity isn’t really “love” at all — it’s a sly form of injustice and deceit.
What that means is this: A great many critics of the church should plan to be disappointed (again) by whomever the conclave chooses. And yet, anyone who sincerely and unselfishly seeks God will continue to find a welcome in the Catholic Church no matter who bears the title of pope.
Timothy George, who ranks among the leading evangelical authors and scholars of our time, recently described Benedict as “the greatest theologian to become pope since the Reformation,” a champion of the culture of life, the Word of God, religious freedom, the pursuit of Christian unity anchored in truth, and the unembarrassed proclamation of the kingship of Jesus Christ. These words of praise, coming from across Christianity’s historic confessional divide, confirm the real legacy of Joseph Ratzinger. This is how faithful Catholics and so many other believing Christians will remember him.
The work he leaves behind, of course, is sobering, and not just for his successor but for all of us who call ourselves Catholic. A bishop friend of mine said recently that what we need now more than anything as a church, both locally and globally, is a “re-formation” — the kind of fundamental, root-and-branch conversion that goes vastly deeper than the pet issues of American media and political culture to a transformation of hearts, and thereby behavior.
In that regard, sometimes the best lessons for the future can be learned from the experience of the past.
Five centuries ago, just a few years before Luther’s “95 theses,” the Catholic reformer the Rev. John Colet delivered a blisteringly frank homily to a cathedral full of English bishops and senior clergy. To an unamused audience, he argued that “never was there more necessity and never did the state of the church more need” a profound effort at purification — not away from Catholic belief, but back toward living it more zealously, more honestly, more faithfully, as though this world and the next depended on it, because they do.
Colet spoke to a convocation of clergy. Today he might need to leave room for quite a few lay people. But the message is worth remembering by all of us in the years ahead, whatever happens in Rome.
Charles J. Chaput is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.