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Pope Benedict XVI's Only True Act Of Reform Was His Last

With his historic resignation, Benedict offers a more modern vision of the Catholic Church. Otherwise, says a commentator from his native Germany, he was a man stuck in the last millennium.

MUNICH- In Rome, under St. Peter’s vast dome, a quotation from Matthew stands written in huge letters: “[…] you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church […] And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The words pack not only a magical kind of authority but an enormous demand, elevating the Pope, yet simultaneously placing a great weight upon his shoulders. And to be Peter, the rock on which the Church is built, has for centuries been anything but a job one could quit. So for the Catholic world, the impact of the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation is simply immense.

The move breaks with 2,000 years of tradition and splits open the concept of the Catholic papacy which sees the 264 Popes since Peter as successors of the Apostle, as Vicar of Christ, as God’s representative on Earth. A retired representative, a former Vicar, an ex-Pope? Until now, unthinkable. There has previously been only one abdication – Pope Celestine V in 1294 (Gregory XII resigned only to end the Western Schism in 1415). 

And now over more than a half-millennium later, Benedict XVI, for reasons of old age, has dared to do the unthinkable. Yet in his tired, enfeebled state he has revealed that he possesses not only inner strength but historic greatness, overcoming his own autocratic understanding of what leadership is -- because on those terms resignation wouldn’t have been possible.

But there is also something bitter, even tragic, in this greatness, because Benedict is only showing his power as he departs. Resigning is the only thing he has done to break the chain of tradition. Otherwise, he either left the chain untouched or – here and there – reinforced it. Only with his resignation does he grow beyond himself, beyond his conventional understanding of the Church.

In facing the problems besetting the Catholic Church today, Benedict remained a Pope of the second millennium who was at home with the theological wisdom of that age – a wisdom that failed to give him any understanding of the third millennium. Benedict was and is the last of the old church fathers -- his dissertation was on St. Augustine, his habilitation on Franciscan philosopher Bonaventura. He thinks with such men, and felt comfortable with their teachings. He never dared take a stab at the new.

Knocking at the door

When Benedict became Pope nearly eight years ago, he was seen as a pope of transition, a bridge-builder between the traditional and the new. He worked with selfless devotion. He faced up to the abuse scandals. But he didn’t build any bridges to cross to take his flock to the other side. He remained a transitional pope, and the question that remains after a papacy like that is: Transition to what? Nobody knows.

The Catholic Church is no longer triumphant. It is not militant. It is a Church of questions – questions that knock, hammer, at the doors of the Vatican -- and are still not allowed entry. Questions like the role of women in the Church. Celibacy. Sexual morality. The Church’s role in the world.

In his last interview before his death, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, asked: “For whom are the sacraments? […] The sacraments are not a disciplinary instrument, but a help for people at moments on their journey and when life makes them weak. Are we bringing the sacraments to the people who need new strength? I’m thinking of all the divorced people and couples who have remarried and extended families. […]”

The Church has little time for non-traditional families. It’s a Church that has been stagnating for 200 years. The Vatican never let itself be touched by the vitality and imaginative power of the Catholicism in Third World countries, particularly Latin America. Churches in Europe are large – and empty. The Catholic Church is well-organized, yet bleeding power.

Ecclesia semper reformanda (“the church is always to be reformed”) is a phrase some attribute to St. Augustine, others to Martin Luther. It matters not. But if the essence of the Church is constant self-renewal, then that essence got lost long ago. The Catholic Church has seldom been in such serious need of reform as it is at the end of the papacy of Benedict XVI.

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