Leading local Catholics praised Pope Benedict XVI’s humility and love for his church as he announced Monday he would become the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years.
“I see it as a grace moment,” said Miguel Diaz, a University of Dayton professor of faith and culture who worked closely with the pope as United States Ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012. “It’s an action that recognizes the transcendence of our spirits as well as our limitations.”
The gracefulness of his departure may turn out to be the biggest part of Pope Benedict’s legacy, according to Diaz and others, freeing future pontiffs to resign when the time is right. “People live a lot longer than they did in 1415,” Diaz said. “This does model a way forth not only for popes but for all leaders.”
William Portier, UD’s chair of Catholic theology, said “as medical science progresses, what do you do if the pope becomes incapacitated? There’s no canonical procedure for that. Pope Benedict has set an alternative precedent that’s good for our church and a courageous and farsighted and humble thing to do.”
Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr praised the pope for acting “humbly and unselfishly for the good of the Church,” adding “that same spirit has characterized his entire life of service.”
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Others pointed to a mixed legacy for the pope whose reign was marked by an ongoing priest sexual abuse scandal, one of the greatest crisis in church history. Kristine Ward of Oakwood, chair of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition, which supports survivors of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church, criticized the Pope’s reaction to the sexual abuse scandal. “He has taken very tiny, window-dressing steps, and he hasn’t backed it up with action,” she said. “This is the largest crisis in the church in 500 years.”
Ward said the pope could still make a strong statement by banning Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony from the conclave that will elect the next pope. Mahony has come under fire for not doing more to stop sexual abuse by priests when he led the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Dennis Doyle, professor of religious studies at UD and the author of “The Church Emerging From Vatican II,” does not believe the scandal will dominate the historical view of Pope Benedict’s reign. “He has spoken out clearly and consistently about abuse and has implemented something close to a zero tolerance policy,” Doyle said. “He has, I believe, humbly and sincerely apologized for the scandal on several occasions, and has also had sessions where he has met with the victims of priestly sex abuse.”
The pope’s impact on young Catholics is a mixed one, according to Daniel Speed Thompson, chair of UD’s religious studies department. “As a professor, I have seen that, like his predecessor’s, Benedict’s project of conservative reform has attracted many young people toward a renewed sense of their Catholic identity,” Speed said. “Yet, for every student so attracted by this vision, I find four or five who have little use for a Catholicism that seems focused in this country on opposing same-sex marriage or contraception to the apparent exclusion of all else.”
Many Catholics, including papal experts, greeted the news with a sense of disorientation. Portier recalled that when his wife called to report that the pope resigned, he responded, “Who?”
Then he recalled a 2010 interview with German journalist Peter Seewald in which the pope hinted that he might resign. “He was clearly aware of the historical precedent and clearly had been thinking about it for some time.”
Doyle acknowledged, “Of course there has been a kind of long-standing cultural expectation that the pope should and will remain pope until he dies. And so there is legitimately an element of shock, a kind of culture shock.”
Doyle said the announcement is not as surprising as it first appears. “First of all, there are explicit provisions made in the 1983 revision of Canon Law for a pope to be able to retire,” Doyle said. “Second, Pope Benedict is known for wanting the papacy to be somewhat more functional and relatively less iconic and charismatic. Third, it has seemed for a few years now that the pope has not been the one completely in charge. When he says that his strength is failing him, he is telling the truth.”
‘Hospitable and welcoming’
Archbishop Schnurr said that the Pope lived up to his description of himself the day of his election as pope in 2005 as “a simple, humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord,” adding, “When I was in Rome during the period that he was a prominent cardinal, I frequently would see him in St. Peter’s Square, mingling with the crowds in the simple black cassock of a priest. Often he was asked by groups of tourists, undoubtedly assuming that he was one of the local priests, to take their picture. This he would do willingly and with a generous smile.”
Schnurr said the pope has always been grounded and approachable. “In my several encounters with him I found this brilliant theologian to be unfailingly kind, hospitable and welcoming,” he said. “Ultimately he was a very pastoral man who won the hearts of all Americans on his pastoral visit to the United States in 2008. I will be forever grateful to him for naming me Archbishop of Cincinnati. Along with the Church around the world I pray for his health and happiness in retirement.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-West Chester, and a Catholic, said, “The Holy Father’s decision displays extraordinary humility and love for the Church, two things that have been the hallmarks of his service. Americans were inspired by his visit to the United States in 2008, and by his quiet, steady leadership of the Church in uncertain times.”
Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, who was a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican 1994 to 2002, said the pope tried his best to bring the papacy into the modern age. “I often wondered how the pressure of implementing new digital means of communication had on his life,” said Zukowski, now a professor of religious studies at UD. “It may not be as easy for him who is primarily a Gutenberg man. He loves the Church deeply and in seeing and experiencing the aging of former popes no doubt realizes what the Church needs in the 21st century is a person with the energy and stamina to face up to the challenges.”
Diaz said that the pope said, “So you’re a theologian!” when they first met, but the demands of the papacy allowed little time for the scholarly pursuits that he loved. “Maybe we can have theological conversations when he’s no longer pope,” he said.
New pope difficult to project
At 85, the pope will be too old to be part of the papal conclave that will vote for his successor. Some 120 members of the College of Cardinals, who must be 80 or younger, meet in seclusion in the Sistine Chapel and are not allowed to leave until the new pope has been elected. The ballots are burned after each round of voting, and the faithful gathered at St. Peter’s Square watch carefully for the color of the smoke. Black smoke means there hasn’t been an election, while white smoke proclaims the election of a new pope.
Portier speculated that the front-runners include Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada; Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana; Archbishop Angelo Scola of Italy; and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Austria. “But betting on what the conclave will do is far worse than betting on who will win the Super Bowl,” Portier added, noting that oddsmakers would not have predicted most recent pontiffs, including the 2005 election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then 78.
The Rev. Earl Fernandes, dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati, was in Rome during the last conclave, said that Ratzinger’s election was indeed a surprise. “I was in shock when he came out on the balcony,” he recalled, “and now it’s all the more shocking that he’s resigning.”
The current College of Cardinals has primarily been selected by Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, so Fernandes expects the new pope to be in line with their conservative theology. “You won’t see a theological shift, but you might see a difference in style,” Fernandes said. “You might see someone who uses the news forms of media to communicate.”
Fernandes believes that the pope’s most enduring legacy will be “providing stability and making the case for faith in an age of disbelief.”