It has been just a little more than two weeks — the common notice time — since the Pope told the world he was leaving his job tomorrow. With only brief reference to examining his "conscience before God", his announcement was remarkably personal and human. It was the kind you'd expect from a secular corporate executive or public official being forced by age to throw in the towel. He said:
...I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.
... in today’s world...in order to govern...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. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome...
The pope was no youngster when he ascended to the papacy and some viewed him then as an interim leader, a placeholder. His election, you might remember, was swift, evidencing that perhaps there may have been few viable contenders or that it had been decided long before when his predecessor was so ill. If you watched the proceedings following John Paul's death, it was hard not to notice the central role already being played by the then Cardinal Ratzinger including a major pre-Conclave address to his fellow princes.
The personal nature of the abdication announcement is in contrast to the Pope's statements since. Now God plays a more and it's fair to say defining role:
The Lord is calling me to "climb the mountain", to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this, it is so I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength.
No longer is Benedict examining his conscience before God. The Lord is calling, deciding, giving instructions. The Pope is merely following what is being asked. It is an interesting shift and, some might even say, a self-serving one. Benedict didn't need a divine stamp on his stepping aside but, absent papal powers, he does need God to credential his role as "pope emeritus".
This may seem a very nuanced change and perhaps I'm reading more into than is there. But I don't think so. This dancing around when to invoke God is quite common. That doesn't make it less troubling, quite the reverse. In fact, one of the things that turns many people away from religion is the manipulative way in which some clergy and non-clergy selectively invoke God, or attribute their own actions or what they demand of others to the divine.
God may well exist. My view is, and has always been, that proving or disproving the unprovable is a futile pursuit. I may not believe there is a god in any form and you may believe with absolute conviction in God or just in some higher power. Both of our beliefs are heartfelt and both deserve, no demand, equal respect. I devote a chapter in my book Transcenders to the subject. Its title, "The arrogance of attribution", has direct bearing on this post. My message there, and here, is that God is not the issue. Rather it is what some people attribute to God. Since in the most profound way God, even for those who believe, is unknowable — as the Kadosh or Sanctus prayer invoked by both Jews and Christians says, "utterly separate" — we can't know with any degree of certainty what he is thinking or really wants.
The remoteness (and consequently the opaqueness) of God presents a real challenge for believers. In effect, God and certainly what is attributed to the divine, is essentially under human control. Sadly, that invites abuse, particularly in the hands of people with authority and power. Divine attributions are, in my view, always subject to an educated guess (conditional) and hopefully put forward modestly, but often they are totally arrogant and immodest. George W. Bush's real and implied claim that he was following God's instructions in going to war is an obvious example. But so too are some of the claims made regularly on pulpits or is the implication, for example, that God was setting the parameters of Benedict's retirement role.
When the faithful invoke God's name or seek God's blessing in worship or elsewhere, I can see where they are coming from and why they are both moved and inspired. Who are we to question either their faith or their intent, how can we even begin to know if their belief is merited. On the other hand, when I hear someone claiming that God literally told them to do something or demanding that we do something on their say so, I am always moved to ask: "How do you know that? In some cases, the attribution is well intended (though still an attribution), in others it is simply arrogant and often, in one way or another, self-serving.
God's name will be invoked often as the Cardinals meet in Rome during the coming days. When the white plume of smoke heralds that a choice has been made there will be the inevitable talk of God's role in the process, of a guiding hand in selecting his representative here on earth. Some, perhaps all, of the assembled princes will believe that to be true. But in all honesty they will equally know that what transpired in that secluded chamber involved a good measure of sheer human politics, power politics if you will. Behind the scenes there will have been jockeying for position not only relative to a candidacy but also for the day after. All princes are never equal and each knows that whoever is finally elevated will have been watching the process, assessing both talent and who can be trusted. God is definitely on the sidelines in all of that.
As to the day after, the Church has significant issues to face and the new pope will have some tough choices to make. Matters of doctrine are probably not at issue. I've said in earlier posts, as have others far more knowledgeable, that the conservative bent of the Roman Church has been baked into the process in the appointments made by two like-minded popes. No, it's not theology that is likely to take center state on the new pope's table but the institution he will be tasked with leading. The institution has huge problems, not the least mundane financial issues facing many of its constituent parts. But the real challenge lies in the fact that both the Vatican and the Church have lost the trust of many in its fold and, lip service paid aside, the respect of many more on the outside. The pope speaks for himself or for God, but doesn't have the unquestioned moral authority that once automatically made him a leader of import and influence. As has been widely reported, a good number of his electors are themselves suspect, if only for their lack of proper supervision. We won't know the magnitude of his victory, but regardless of how large the margin, a cloud hangs over Rome and, as such, over his papacy as it does over Benedict's. To be successful, he will have to address it head on sooner rather than later — very much a human task of leadership.
Benedict goes into retirement under terms that we all know he, not God, dictated. The housing will be simple compared to what he's experienced in recent days, but comfortable. He will continue to wear white garments and a white skullcap. He will have the title of pope emeritus. He has given his entire life to the Church and risen to its top. He surely deserves a comfortable and dignified retirement. He could have waited for his successor to set the parameters of his emeritus status, but he didn't do that. Why? Because he could and, as many CEO's would have done, he exercised his power and rights of office. History will judge his papacy and now his final time in retirement. From his advantage point, he hopes God and the historians here on earth will be kind.