In hindsight, the Papal resignation is not that surprising. The Papal vocation is, after all, an immensely demanding one, especially since Pope John Paul II raised the bar on the amount of travel expected of a Pope. John Paul II also routinely worked 12-14 hour days, with very little spare time that was not spent on prayer or masses. What is, therefore, remarkable is that Benedict XVI was one of the first Popes to resign due to old age and declining health. The implications thereof, both on the Church and on global politics could be quite significant.
What is important is that Benedict XVI has set a precedent, having been the first Pope to resign in almost six centuries. His ability to face the immense task that is the Papacy and leave while he is still in good health could be the cornerstone of his legacy. The process of Papal succession has also changed – whilst the outgoing Pope is not expected to play a role in choosing his successor, a planned resignation rather than an unexpected death is bound to smooth the Papal transition. Above all, by boldly breaking with centuries of history, Benedict XVI has made it much more acceptable for future Popes to resign in the face of ill health as well. This is a very welcome development. The Pope’s role became much more difficult and therefore stressful in the past fifty years, and requires immense mental agility and good physical strength. The Papal resignation, if it were to set a precedent, would mean that future Popes, too, would be ready to step down once beset by ill health and physical weakness. This, in turn, could create a Papacy in which Popes act when at their physical and mental peak, refreshing and strengthening the institution.
The Pope has played an important political and diplomatic role, particularly in the past fifty years. Perhaps the most important post-1945 diplomatic action by a Pope was John Paul II’s intervention in the Beagle Channel dispute. As successive attempts at resolving the disagreement had failed, the Pope personally invited representatives from the Argentine and Chilean governments to Rome and the Vatican eventually presided over a successful mediation. Were it not for the Papal intervention, it is likely that the attempts at mediation would have failed. Benedict XVI’s foreign policies were far less colourful, although he did endorse the principle of Responsibility to Protect at a speech to the UN. Furthermore, Papal trips under both the incumbent Pope and his predecessor affected many Catholics worldwide, but were also important diplomatic symbols. When the Falklands War broke out, John Paul II did not cancel his visit to the UK, but also swiftly organised a visit to Argentina. Likewise, Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba was hugely symbolic. Popes speak to the people, rather than to governments and their visits can often have important political repercussions, as happened during John Paul II’s visits to Communist Poland and Papal visits to Chile and Cuba. The international and diplomatic role of the Pope is often ignored but mistakenly so. John Paul II seems to have set a precedent for the “traveling Pope.” It is therefore not inconceivable that an inability to travel due to old age (Benedict XVI’s doctors supposedly advised him against doing any more transatlantic trips) was one of the reasons behind the Papal resignation.
Following the Second Vatican Council, a distinct “third world theology” emerged in Latin America and Africa. This theology had obvious political and social repercussions, as priests and bishops often worked closer with the poor and campaigned against dictatorships. Whilst the Vatican strongly supported this new focus on the poor, it condemned what it saw as Marxist elements in some theologians’ accounts. This is only one of many internal Church debates. Some priests, bishops and theologians have argued that the Second Vatican Council was too progressive, others felt that it did not go far enough. Such debates still matter, even fifty years after the Council has concluded. Not only that, but such debates also have crucial political implications. After all, the Argentine hierarchy in the 1970s and 1980s was uncomfortable with the new, social focus of post-Vatican II theology. It therefore implicitly rejected its social responsibilities and acted like a 19th century Church, uniting with an oppressive state, rather than opposing it on behalf of the people. Theology and theological unity therefore truly do matter. A Pope must be strong, bold and decisive, setting out a central theological (and, by extension, political) direction for the Church. Trying to mediate between different Catholic factions must have been a very trying, if crucially important, task. The Church is now more geographically diverse and perhaps more politically and theologically diverse than ever. Managing such a Church is no easy feat, and one that almost certainly contributed to the Pope’s exhaustion and resignation. It remains to be seen in what direction his successor will lead the Church, and what the diplomatic and political implications will be.
At the same time, a Pope does not, in practice, have absolute control over the Catholic hierarchy. A certain decentralisation of the Church followed the Second Vatican Council. Even though John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to partially undo this trend, many Church decisions still happen on a more local level. Furthermore, the Church is more diverse than ever before. Its leadership is increasingly reflecting the geographical, ethnic and linguistic diversity of its followers. It is likely that the next Pope will come from Africa (or possibly Latin America). Fifty years ago, the idea of a non-Italian Pope seemed strange at best. Now, many would probably be surprised if the next Pope was European. One thing, though, is certain. In the past fifty years, the position of the Pope has become more difficult, politically important and has required immense amounts of attention and energy. The Pope is not only now expected to be a religious leader, but also a diplomat, a manager, a theological mediator, and a political guiding force. This resignation will therefore hopefully set an effective precedent, one in which future Popes will also resign once they feel incapable of carrying the immense burden that is the modern Papacy.