My post on the “math” behind Pope Benedict’s resignation has garnered some attention, so I wanted to speculate as to why Benedict might have set it up this way. If you haven’t read my previous post, the basic gist is that Benedict will serve the Church exactly 365 days longer than John Paul II–not that Benedict’s pontificate will be longer (JPII reigned for almost 27 years, but B16 will reign for almost 8), but that he will be exactly one year older when he abdicates than John Paul was when he died.
My speculations are as follows:
1. Benedict wants to honor the legacy of John Paul II. Many people were calling for John Paul’s resignation in the last few years of his pontificate, arguing that his ill health and frailty made him incapable of serving as pope. But John Paul stuck it out to the end and really became an example for eldercare and the morality of late-in-life health choices, namely that the dignity of the human person must be preserved and no steps should be taken to hasten death. Benedict, while having a different perspective than John Paul (see #3 below), wants to honor John Paul’s witness and serve the Church late into his life. By serving exactly 365 days longer, he nods to John Paul’s legacy and the example he gave to us.
2. John Paul II’s former personal secretary, Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, has made comments criticizing Benedict XVI’s abdication as “coming down from the cross.” (Newsmax story here) I think this is exactly the kind of criticism that Benedict was hoping to circumvent (at least in the history books) by the timing of his resignation. The counter could always be: I served the Church even later into my life than John Paul–by a year!
3. Benedict wants to honor John Paul, while at the same time disagreeing with him. In 2002, he reportedly made comments that it would be “very wise” for a pope to resign if he was incapacitated by ill health.
4. Cardinal Ratzinger submitted his original resignation to John Paul II in Spring 2002 on his 75th birthday. Now, just before his 86th birthday, he’ll have served the Church 11 years past the mandatory retirement age for bishops of 75. (Just another interesting note–Benedict will not be participating in the conclave to elect the new pope, but even if he did he would be unable to vote, being past his 80th birthday.)
5. Perhaps Benedict wanted to abdicate before the canonization of John Paul II, so as not to give the impression that he was granting sainthood for the sake of an old friend. The miracle needed for John Paul II’s canonization is in the hands of the Congregation for the causes of saints (Vatican Insider).
6. Lastly, I think that Benedict wants to set a precedent for future popes. He believes the Church needs energetic leadership and that ill health late in life can preclude a man from bringing this kind of leadership to the task of governing the Church. Benedict, perhaps, is suggesting to future popes that if their old age or ill health prevents them from doing the pope’s job well that they too should abdicate and allow a younger man to fulfill the role.