Has papacy lost some of its aura?

Pope Benedict's back, April 2006 It is nearly 600 years since a Pope last retired

Benedict XVI presides over his last big service as pope on Wednesday, when he celebrates Ash Wednesday in Rome's St Peter's Basilica.

His resignation, announced on Monday, is of huge significance as a precedent for the papacy.

Regulations drawn up by Paul VI in 1975 and John Paul II in 1996 allow popes to resign.

John Paul II drafted letters resigning the papacy in the event of "an incurable disease or an impediment" that prevented him from functioning as pope. However, he was concerned if a precedent was actually set, it could bring future popes under pressure to resign even if they were perfectly well.

It could also lead to disruptive speculation about whether the reigning pope might resign were there to be scandal or some other difficulty. It also affects the nature of the papacy, robbing it of some of its magic.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters suggests the papacy has become "more of a job than a vow".

"In a single moment the pope has removed some of the aura of the papacy, the idea that it was a vocation rather than a ministry, something that cannot be abandoned without somehow affronting the Holy Spirit," he wrote.

Other commentators have suggested it could be the first step on the path to a normal retirement age for popes - possibly at 75, the same age as bishops normally offer their resignations.

'Ghost at the feast'
Pope at general audience - 13 February The Pope said he was resigning for the "good of the Church"

Benedict XVI will become the first pope for 600 years to witness the election of his successor, and that very fact could have an effect - albeit indirectly - on the outcome.

Not only has he appointed well over half the 117 cardinals who will vote in the conclave in mid-March, but he is likely to be something of a ghost at the feast of their deliberations.

Some cardinals might feel that voting for a candidate known to advocate a different - perhaps more progressive - course than Benedict, would constitute a rejection of his papacy.

Although the Pope will leave his job on 28 February, he will be very much in office until that moment.

Every step after he stands down will set some sort of precedent - from where he lives to what will happen to the ring he wears and which would have been symbolically broken on his death in office.

Pope Benedict XVI

  • At 78, one of the oldest new popes in history when elected in 2005
  • Born in Germany in 1927, joined Hitler Youth during WWII and was conscripted as an anti-aircraft gunner - but deserted
  • As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, spent 24 years in charge of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - overseeing Catholic doctrine
  • A theological conservative with uncompromising views on homosexuality and women priests
  • Reached out to other faiths, visiting sites holy to Muslims and Jews

It is known Pope Benedict will swap the papal apartments for a building in the grounds of the Vatican - but not when he will take up residence there.

Living in this converted monastery, Benedict will be the first pope for six centuries to hear how the first draft of history judges him.

He might hope time will lend enchantment to his papacy, by focusing more on his writings than on his management of his huge, unwieldy, Church.

Even stern critics acknowledge Pope Benedict is an outstanding theologian. His teaching documents on love and hope, and three books about Jesus have been widely admired.

He has also impressed the sceptical with speeches on overseas visits - including at Westminster Hall in London - defending the role that religion, and Christianity in particular, should play in public life.

But it was Pope Benedict's fate that those who might have supported his stand in one area usually found another element of it to criticise.

Mr Winters points to Benedict's advocacy of social justice as an example.

The Pope warned recently that "unregulated financial capitalism" and growing income inequality were a threat to world peace.

Pope Benedict XVI. Photo: December 2012 The Pope will stand down later this month

But says Winters: "The Catholic left, unfortunately, let the Catholic right define the narrative of Benedict's reign… and neglected the significance of his social teachings to focus on anything he said about sex or gender.

"Benedict's rigorous critique of modern consumer, capitalist culture was underplayed. Whenever he spoke against gay marriage, however, the headlines of a reactionary pope could be found everywhere."

What people will tend to recall are the more uncomfortable moments - the Pope's investigation of "liberal" American nuns, his view of homosexuality as "objectively disordered", or the bunker mentality of the Vatican in the face of allegations about sexual abuse.

Assess record

Indeed it is the abuse scandal, and the continuing debate about its causes, and the Church's historical record in dealing with it, that could cause the still-living former pope the most discomfort.

What happens now

  • 17-23 February - Lenten retreat, most normal Vatican functions suspended
  • 24 February - Pope recites Angelus for the last time
  • 27 February - Last weekly audience, in St Peter's Square
  • Evening of 28 February - Pope leaves office
  • From 15 March - Conclave to elect new Pope

He will have little control over how a future pope might choose to investigate, describe or apportion blame in an area of church life that seems to have much more to reveal.

In Benedict's resignation, the Church has been denied an important ritual, which could have provided a sense of closure that will be missing from his papacy.

The gathering of cardinals for the funeral of a pope is a grand and inspiring event.

It is a chance to praise the late pope in public, but assess his record candidly in private, with a view to choosing a successor who will not make the same mistakes.

With Pope Benedict, still alive and resident in the Vatican, there could be a sense of unfinished business, and a case still to be answered.

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