Pope Benedict Defends His Abdication
During his last Sunday as a Pope, the Holy Father has indirectly – but clearly enough – defended his decision to abdicate. Once again, he has said he cannot do his job properly any more, and a life of prayer is now both more fitted to him and – which I am sure was the paramount consideration in his decision – more salutary for the Church and faithful.
There are around voices that say this was a mistake (sometimes, a big or catastrophical one) and the Holy Father should have done strange things, like allowing the Church to remain without an effective guide, permit that internal strife of all kind tears the shop apart (a frequent result of weak leadership, as the Vatican itself now more than eloquently shows) and in general see the detetioration of the Church in the West continue.
In the immortal novel I Promessi Sposi, Alessandro Manzoni puts in the mouth of Don Abbondio (the weak and cowardly priest who had consented not to celebrate a marriage because of pressure from a local warlord, animated by the most scandalous motives) the unforgettable words: “Il coraggio, uno non se lo puo’ dare”. It is difficult to translate into a foreign language the particular way Italians stress a point, but a fair translation might be “with courage it is so, that one can’t give it to oneself”; whereas probably the beauty and drama of the original are lost, but the basic message remains.
Don Abbondio has become in Italy the epitome of the weak, self-centred, cowardly priest interested more in living a quiet and -in those times – comfortable and privileged life than in fighting for Christ as a good priest, at the cost of his life if needs be. His words express a simple concept, well clear to us soft and understanding Italians: you can’t ask from people that they just become who they are not. Don Abbondio must choose between a defiance of power that (he thinks, being cowardly) might mean death, and a compliance allowing him to go on – or so he thinks – with his quiet life of comfort and privilege.
Now, whilst I do not want to draw too near a comparison between Pope Benedict and Don Abbondio, it is clear that neither of them is a Horseman of the Apocalypse. Old, peaceful, not cut for war, and unable – like everyone else – to completely change what he is, it simply cannot be asked of Pope Benedict that he jumps over 86 years of his life and starts to live and act according to a freely chosen new persona. It just does not work that way.
With courage – or with the will to be a strong, energetic, willful Pope, leading the Church with a firm hand and expecting to be obeyed – it is so, that one cannot give it to oneself.
Courage, the Holy Father has gathered enough – very probably more than he ever could in his life – when he has decided to abdicate, full knowing the fans of the “dying Pope circus” (so popular only a few years ago, and so beloved by the media, and so obscenely convenient for heterodox Cardinals and Bishops) would be incensed at him depriving them of another year-long media show.
Not only he had courage, but if you ask me he took what is – with Summorum Pontificum – the smartest decision of his reign.
A Pope is, in fact, there to reign, not simply to talk. His duty is to give orders, make unpleasant decisions, displease an awful lot of people and upset many more, defy secular powers whenever necessary, and defy the stupidity of the world every single day. It takes energy and courage to do so. Pope Benedict never had the second, and is rapidly losing the first. Nor could anyone expect of him that he suddenly transforms himself into a different person overnight. God can cause such tranformations, of course, but they are very rare. Normally, weak people won’t be able to give themselves the courage they lack.
Don Abbondio tries to get away with his weakness, and is in serious trouble when his behaviour comes to the ears of his superiors. Pope Benedict, far braver and more honest, realises he can’t be any good for the Church as an even weaker Pope, and draws the consequences. From a weak Pope you can really not expect more than this.
Not only, therefore, I think that His Holiness’ decision should be respected, but I think that the courage necessary for such a step should be recognised and duly appreciated.
The alternative would have been another year-long power vacuum. But as power, like nature, has horror vacui, this vacuum would have been filled by people who have never been elected Pope, and taking all decisions with very little of the (earthly) responsibility.
A Pope is a King, not an exposition item for the joy of the TV channels. We need him strong, alert, and full of energy. Weak Popes of the “harmless great-uncle”-type only benefits the local hierarchies and the Vatican power groups, particularly if they aren’t orthodox.
With courage it is so, that one cannot give it to oneself.