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Editorial: The Vatican’s renewal

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI and his impact on the Roman Catholic Church will be debated long after he steps down from the throne of Saint Peter at the end of this month. While Catholics believe the teachings of the pope are infallible, the momentous decision by the 85-year-old pontiff to acknowledge his physical, and perhaps managerial, limitations may be the most significant part of his legacy.

Benedict has been pope for seven years and his statement Feb. 11 to a surprised gathering of cardinals was revolutionary and precedent-setting. He is saying, in effect, even a pope must acknowledge when he cannot go on, when it is time for a change and when someone else must lead the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.

He is the first pope to willingly resign in more than seven centuries. Prior to Benedict, the last pope to step down was Gregory XII in 1415, but he did so reluctantly to end a fractious dispute that threatened the unity of the church.

“In today’s world,” Benedict said in his announcement, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of St. Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

His announcement is in keeping with beliefs he expressed in a book in 2010 when, in response to an interviewer’s question, he said. “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation, to resign.” Benedict may have spoken those words with images of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in mind. John Paul was pope for 27 years, chosen by the College of Cardinals in 1978 at the age of 58. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001. For many, especially the Catholic faithful, it was painful to watch the once robust, athletic John Paul struggle to speak, stand and conduct Mass.

Benedict, an intellectual, is not considered a strong manager. That means the Vatican has not had a strong leader for more than a decade, given John Paul’s frailty in the last four year’s of his papacy. Many feel this contributed to a less than forceful response by the Vatican to the clergy sex abuse scandal when it exploded publicly in the United States in 2002.

Revelations of clerical sexual abuse have not abated, and Benedict has only seen it spread to Ireland, across Europe and to Australia.

Benedict has also been battered by a series of scandals during his administration — including an investigation of Vatican money-laundering and the arrest of his butler for theft of private documents, which, when published, illustrated mismanagement and corruption inside the Vatican.

Benedict understands that the church needs a leader with the strength, energy and ability to not only lead the faithful, but to clean house within the Vatican. Italian newspaper commentators who are experts on the Vatican suggest Benedict’s decision is also a message and a challenge to others that could lead to resignations from the Curia, the church’s administrative body.

Such fallout as well as the election of a new pope will be watched closely over the next few months.

For now, in assessing the meaning of Benedict’s action, consider this observation by Carol Zaleski, professor of world religions at Smith College, offered in an opinion piece last week in the New York Times.

Zaleski, describing Pope Benedict’s decision as one of “humility and wisdom,” called it 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.”

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