Rutler on the Pope’s abdication

Someone forwarded what Fr. George Rutler contributed to Crisis about the Pope’s abdication.  Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.

Benedict’s Decision in the Light of Eternity

What God knows is not necessarily what God wills. Each pope is guaranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit from fallible definitions of faith and morals, [NB: ] but to suppose that each pope is there because God wants him there, including the unworthy successors of Peter, comes close to the unforgivable blasphemy against the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.   Twenty year old Benedict IX was at least as nightmarish as his successor Gregory VI who usually is counted with his predecessor among the popes who relinquished their office. There are times, though, when the hand of God is not manhandled, and that, for instance, is why Cardinal Cooke once told me that he had never been so conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit as he was in the Conclave that elected John Paul II.  It may also be that the sudden death of John Paul I, as stunning as recent events in the Vatican, was not untimely if it was part of a higher plan.

The Petrine office is not indelible like Holy Orders,  [As I wrote elsewhere today.] and  in 1415 Gregory XII nobly and efficiently made his resignation a kind of security for healing the Western Schism.  Dante  was so frustrated by what he considered dereliction of duty, that he put the abdicated Celestine V [probably, though Dante doesn’t name him as other than the one who made the “great refusal”.] into the Inferno but that was his own Commedia, when the Church, not in fancy but in fact, knew he is in Heaven.  In 2009 photographs were widely circulated showing Benedict XVI leaving his pallium at Celestine’s tomb, and many commentators then thought that this was more than a gesture of incidental piety. [As it turns out…]

As with the Spiritual Franciscans as a whole, almost in tandem with the earlier Montanists, Celestine V proved the utter impracticality of dovelike innocence without serpentine astuteness, and Boniface VIII was as right as was John XXII in condemning these “Fraticelli.”  But Boniface also proved the desperate shortcoming of cleverness without innocence.  Benedict XVI’s serene retreat to pray will not be like the last months of Pope Celestine who might nearly qualify as a martyr for the terrible treatment he endured for ten months until death when immured in the walls of the Fumone  castle in Campagna. Celestine was confined to an unsanitary cell hardly large enough for a bed and an altar.  We see in this the contempt that venal souls have for the motives of the humble, [nicely put] and Celestine was nothing if not humble. The role of Boniface in Celestine’s degradation has often been sanitized, but, as John Henry Newman wrote in the “Historical Sketches: “glosses are put upon memorable acts, because they are thought not edifying, whereas of all scandals such omissions, such glosses, are the greatest.”  [Men like Boniface VIII reassure me that this truly is the Church Christ founded and still guides.  Were it not for God, we would have destroyed the Church long ago.] A decree of Boniface, making hay of the misfortunes of his saintly predecessor, spelled out for the first time the canonical case for papal renunciation:

Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, whilst still presiding over the government of the aforesaid Church, wishing to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, having deliberated with his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by Apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign. We, therefore, lest it should happen that in course of time this enactment should fall into oblivion, and the aforesaid doubt should revive the discussion, have placed it among other constitutions ad perpetuam rei memoriam by the advice of our brethren.

Benedict XVI certainly has known all this, for perhaps not since the Lambertini pope Benedict XIV has there been a pope of such mental acuity and historical erudition, nor probably has any pope since Gregory I, in his writings and witness, matched the magisterial eloquence and liturgical sensibility of this pope of Bavaria. The verdict of centuries from now will affirm the spiritual electricity of his Regensburg lecture, [Certainly one of the most important moments of his pontificate.] and how he spoke to the French academics in 2010, and, if words be immortal, his undying words in Westminster Hall.  [One of the other great moments of the pontificate. Benedict went to Westminster in much the same way as Nixon went to China.] His general audiences regularly outnumbered those of his beloved predecessor and those accustomed to spectacle actually began to listen to the crystalline reasoning of what he said. [I think the phrase is, people went to see John Paul II but to listen to Benedict XVI.] Before he became pope,  any form critic could detect his hand in Vatican documents when turgid prose suddenly [almost accidently] broke into clarity. His first rate mind did not indulge the tendency of lesser minds to obscure what is profound and to think that what is obscure is perforce profound.

If he was expected to be a caretaker pope, he took care very well, proving himself unexpectedly radical in his reform of reform, [Not so unexpected, really. ] which is more difficult than reform itself, for it restores the form that reformers forgot. So we had the renewal of liturgical integrity in an ecology of beauty,  streamlining of the Curia, [though not enough] greater attention to episcopal appointments, the overdue beatification of Newman with all its portents for theological science,  the Anglican Ordinariate which may be less significant for what it becomes than for the fact that it exists at all, [indeed] and progress with the Eastern churches.  His plans, like all “the best laid schemes of mice and men” were not completely realized.  Not all that Benedict called “filth” was removed, [cf. Joseph Ratzinger’s Stations of the Cross from 2005] and we can be sure that a  media eager to affect being scandalized, [well said] will point out among those entering the Conclave, those who bring with them the shadows of what Benedict tried to dispel. But he continues to dignify in charity even those who may not understand that “dignitas.”  He announced his renunciation of office in Latin, and  by so doing indicated his hope that even if some of those listening may have mingled astonishment with incomprehension, his successor will be able to speak the official language of the Church he leads and the city he governs. [Hmmm… I wonder… is this a hint at the writer’s preference?]

According to the postulator for the Cause of John Paul II, as early as 1989 Wojtyla had signed a  letter of renunciation to be invoked should he become incapacitated. He reaffirmed this in 1994 but in the same year he told the surgeon operating on his broken leg: “I have to heal. Because there is no place in the Church for a Pope Emeritus.”  It is only human to be so conflicted, and John Paul II opted  against renunciation. The fact that Pope Benedict had scheduled various journeys, canonizations and an encyclical to be published “within the first six months of 2013” would indicate that his decision to step down, if  considered a possibility for a while, was made more suddenly.  As  Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he must have suffered patiently when he saw decisions made that he would not have wanted made.  And had he become pope sooner,  many tragedies such as the Legionaries of Christ scandal and other defacements of the Church, would have be handled far differently. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] Although he is younger than Leo XIII who slogged on until his 93rd year, and his physical condition is far better than that of his predecessor in his last years,  the experience of those years had to have shaped his present decision. [And it is pro-active.  Had he waited and abdicated after the howls of the MSM and pressure from within and without had risen, his enemies would have claimed victory.  Some of the stupider of Benedict’s critics are trying to push that claim now, but they are hardly to be taken seriously.]

In an age of dangerously limited attention spans and fickle loyalties, there is a danger of proposing that popes last only as long as people want them. Romans have long said with their typical insouciance that when one pope dies you just make another one:  “Morto un papa se ne fa un altro.”  As everyone dies, it was important that John Paul defied the aimless Culture of Death by showing how to die, but that witness also came at the cost of care of the churches. There were times then when the Church Militant seemed in freefall, and the man who then was Cardinal Ratzinger must have anguished much in silence. He did not, however, trim the truth as he knew it and went so far as to say that a certain passage in “Gaudium et Spes” of which young Wojtyla was a principle architect was, “downright Pelagian.”  Cardinal Dulles observed: [NB] “The contrast between Pope Benedict and his predecessor is striking. John Paul II was a social ethicist, anxious to involve the Church in shaping a world order of peace, justice, and fraternal love. Among the documents of Vatican II, John Paul’s favorite was surely the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. Benedict XVI, who looks upon Gaudium et Spes as the weakest of the four constitutions, shows a clear preference for the other three.”

The personality cults of our present age had to a degree shaped the young in the Church who had only known one pope. A most attractive charism of Benedict XVI has been his desire to vanish so that the faithful might see only Christ: “cupio dissolvi.”  He strengthened the papacy by vaulting sanctity over celebrity.  In a grand paradox, nothing in him has become so conspicuous as his  desire to disappear. Christ gave the Keys to a Galilean fisherman with a limited life span. He chose Peter; Peter did not choose Him. When the pope relinquishes the Petrine authority, he does not submit a letter of resignation to any individual, for the only one capable of receiving it is Christ. This is why “renunciation” or “abdication”  is a more accurate term than “resignation” in the case of the Supreme Pontiff. [Sound familiar?] Unless this is understood, the danger is that a superficial world will try to refashion the pope into some hind of amiable but transient office holder. Popes are not Dutch royalty. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II has one tiara, not three, but the longer she wears it, the more she seems to grow in the affection of her people, which bond of respect is morally more powerful than any constitutional grant of rights and privileges. But the papacy’s authority is absolute and not gratuitous, and its exercise cannot be only conditional and validated by human approval. Pope Benedict pays tribute to that imperial obligation of his office by  willing to relinquish it.

To risk the sort of truism that gets to be what it is by being true: Nothing is permanent in this world. The world is older than our centuries and cannot stop changing. We speak of papal protocols in the Middle Ages as if they happened long ago, but only from our limited perspective were they in the middle of anything. In view of the recently found fact that the declining dinosaurs were finally wiped out by an asteroid 66.03 millions years ago, the Middle Ages might as well have been when my alarm went off this morning. Study of the amino acids in the eyes of bowhead whales now reveals that these magnificent creatures can live over two hundred years, and there may be a whale in the Arctic right now that swam those same waters during the War of 1812. Line up ten of those whales and you are at the Resurrection. From that perspective, we [and the SSPXers] should speak cautiously about Rome as the Eternal City.  “Sub specie aeternitatis,” Rome really was built in a day.  Pope Benedict attests by word and example: that “… here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Benedict XVI, Mail from priests and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Thanks Father(s)–very informative.

  2. mamajen says:


    This quote early on…

    “Each pope is guaranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit from fallible definitions of faith and morals”

    …is key to me. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but no such guarantee extends to those who do not hold the office of the pope. This is why it’s so troubling to me to think of a very ill or completely incapacitated pope delegating too much responsibility to others, and why I think Pope Benedict made a wise choice.

  3. Stumbler but trying says:

    When I read this piece by Fr. Rutler I was finally put at ease. As the days come and go, it seems more and more to all make sense. I am grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for having given our beloved Holy Father the wisdom, the courage, and the strength to follow through despite what we might have expected otherwise. I know I will be reading this piece again.

  4. bookworm says:

    “Dante was so frustrated by what he considered dereliction of duty, that he put the abdicated Celestine V into the Inferno”
    In light of Celestine’s personal sanctity and later canonization, and the fact that the “one who made the great refusal” is not named, some scholars have since concluded Dante might have been referring to Pontius Pilate and his refusal to accept responsibility for Christ’s death.

  5. Johnno says:

    This is perhaps the best article I’ve read analyzing the matter! Good stuff!

    Well… up until casually saying, “recently found fact that the declining dinosaurs were finally wiped out by an asteroid 66.03…” But I’ll let that go. : P

    mamajen –
    I believe that is only referring to formal declarations and ex cathedra etc. Popes can still err and make mistakes in the general day to day business. Certainly there are criticisms about the men Pope John Paul II raised up and some of the things he did, and he was perfectly healthy then.

  6. boxerpaws1952 says:

    Pope Benedict the XVI is not leaving the Church-just the papacy :) I know-as with the death of John Paul II- we feel a personal loss. I have to admit honestly that the emotions are somewhat different. When Pope Benedict was elected it was a time of resurrection. In more ways than one.
    Question though; when Pope Benedict passes away will he be given the title Pope Benedict and a funeral and burial as a previous Pope? He would not be considered never having been a Pope-just not the Pope at the time of his death.
    I hope this is not taken as meaning to be insensitive(it does sound a little stupid though) to the current feelings of sadness people already have.

  7. robtbrown says:

    Fr Rutler is always a good read.

    The resignation has caused me to do some thinking. BXVI didn’t really want to be pope, and I wonder whether he would have declined the office (or stopped a growing majority) if JPII would have done some of the things he wanted.

  8. Rushintuit says:

    There’s a fly in the ointment as they say, regarding the conclave that elected John Paul II. I don’t have any inside information about the untimely death of Albino Luciani and I wasn’t present like Father Rutler was. But I would be more open to the idea of the active participation of the Holy Ghost, if it wasn’t for a certain Bernardino Nogara and the can of worms he opened in 1929. As far as I can tell, the Vatican Bank Scandal was never resolved. If the next Pope is someone like Cardinal Bertone, I fear my doubts will turn into real cynicism.

  9. boxerpaws1952 says:

    Can i ask what promoted you to write “untimely”? Also curious what you mean by ‘someone like’?
    There may be lot of people like someone else in different respects-what is your criteria for someone who is “like” Cardinal Bertone?
    Are you trying to suggest John Paul I’s death was part of some conspiracy to get John Paul II elected?
    I know men can be evil but that is ludicrous. There isn’t a shred of evidence that his death was part of a conspiracy. Untimely suggests foul play All death is timely.
    Not to change the subject but i did read further comments and information and cleared the air on some questions i raised. Pope Benedict will be a cardinal and upon his death will be referred to as Pope Benedict the XVI. I am still not clear on why he is leaving the office but it is so monumental i have to believe he does so with a clear conscience and for some reasons that may only be known to him and God alone. Anything less would be uncharitable.He clearly made the decision for good reasons. If it were pressure of any kind we KNOW he would not succumb. He accepted his election at a very difficult time in the Church. He certainly could have chosen not to accept had he wanted to avoid carrying the cross he was about to take up.Not hear from him again until his death? Not so sure. I know in humility he will not make his presence felt for the benefit of the new Pope but remain totally silent if he is moved to teach? I think that remains to be seen; admitting i could be wrong too.
    CHARITY rushintoit. Then we have nothing to fear.

  10. boxerpaws1952 says:

    i have to add this blog is a God send and the comments,information and insights have been very helpful.thank you Fr Z and everyone who has been so helpful -though you may be unaware of it.

  11. Animadversor says:

    Who else writes with such beautiful clarity as Father Rutler? Reading this, I feel as though I have been given a most lovely gift.

  12. oldCatholigirl says:

    Thank you, Father Z, for bringing this clarifying article to our attention. I was grieved and stunned at the news when it came to me througn CWN early Monday morning. Your blog has really helped me to remain serene, in spite of my grief. I have long loved and revered Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI for his undoubted combination of erudition and insight and what always seemed to me to be a loving heart and genuine humility (from what I’ve seen, read, and heard from people who have met him). His renunciation, given in Latin in a voice now weak, is, to me, characteristic. Our job now is to pray for him and with him for our beloved Church.

  13. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I have read that Cardinal Benedetto Caetani (who would become Boniface VIII) drafted St. Celestine V’s act of reununciation, and that, far from “with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all [his brethren, the Cardinals of the Roman Church]” as Boniface puts it, Cardinals Jocopo and Pietro Colonna did not recognize his renunciation and considered the election of Boniface illegal – for which they paid dearly, including the razing of their residence, Palestrina (its churches not excepted), upon the ruins of which he built Civitas Papalis.

    Can anyone recommend detailed sources (preferably online) about this?

  14. SegoLily says:

    Beautiful piece. I have said for several years that the influence of Benedict XVI will echo down the centuries. I personally believe he has done much to save Western Civilization inasmuch as he resurrected the TLM, and has created a bridge to Holy Mother Church for disaffected Anglicans which is a monumental gesture to heal Christianity.

  15. Imrahil says:

    Popes are not Dutch royalty.

    Nice. (No offense, dear @Phil.)

  16. Phil_NL says:

    None taken, Imrahil.

    In fact, the number of cardinals who would not be an improvement over Dutch royalty can be counted on the fingers of one hand, so I expect this statement to be empirically confirmed once again soon. Thank God Popes are not Dutch royalty!

  17. AnnAsher says:

    I was taught that the Holy Spirit selected the Pope. Perhaps this is yet another rcia invented lie I am now being stripped of. But this abdication is redefining my understanding of the papacy. It sounds ever more a human office. An election of humanity (Catholic humanity). And more and more exactly like the orthodox define it.

  18. Joan A. says:

    Fr. George Rutler, in my opinion, would make a fine pope, and is better qualified than many cardinals.

    No offense meant to Fr. Z. We cannot let you ascend to the throne, because you’d have to give up this blog and we are much too dependent upon it.

  19. rcg says:

    Rutler’s prose is intoxicating. I wish I could bottle it and have friends over to enjoy it in my back garden.

  20. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I was taught that the Holy Spirit selected the Pope. Perhaps this is yet another rcia invented lie I am now being stripped of.”

    The Holy Spirit, acting through the College of Cardinals, selects the Pope. What the Pope does once in office may or may not be another matter. There have been saints and sinners. Pope Benedict is acting within the due process allowed, once agin, by the Holy Spirit by virtue of the authority granted to the Pope. You were not lied too in RCIA, although they might have flashed things out a bit more.

    The Chicken

  21. The Masked Chicken says:

    Should read:

    You were not lied too in RCIA, although they might have fleshed things out a bit more.

    Gotta love iPad autospell :)

    The Chicken

  22. Michael says:

    “From that perspective, we should speak cautiously about Rome as the Eternal City. ”

    I have often wondered about this. Christ guaranteed the survival of his Church. And by entrusting its defense to Peter, he implicitly guaranteed the survival of Peter’s office. The office of Bishop of Rome, earthly guarantor of the Church’s survival, must survive. But what does that mean for Rome itself? Obviously, Rome has been razed and rebuilt numerous times. But could we ever see its permanent destruction and the relocation of the papacy? (Avignon comes to mind, but the Avignon papacy ended. And the fact that St. Catherine of Siena was impelled by God to implore the Pope’s return to Rome certainly does not guarantee its survival, but suggests that the city and the Petrine ministry are linked.)

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    Where the Pope is, there is the Church; Where the Church is, there is Rome.

    Even if Rome falls, I almost guarantee it will always be called the Holy Roman Catholic Church. The idea of a Holy Poughkeepsie Catholic Church is almost too terrifying to imagine :)

    No offense to New Yorkers.

    The Chicken

  24. catholicmidwest says:

    Ann Asher,
    RCIA programs are survey courses to get you into the Church. Admittedly some of the information isn’t well done in some of them, but they didn’t lie to you about this. I’m a convert too, of almost 30 years. The Holy Spirit is the driving force behind papal elections; he is fully aware that we often do not listen to him well; nevertheless, he guides the Church into the future he has for us with infinite patience and fortitude.

  25. catholicmidwest says:

    PS, Ann Asher,
    The structures of the Catholic Church, both the structure of Holy Orders and consecrated religious life, are ancient. Both use categories of doing and being that post-modern man is not familiar with. Most of us tend to use the categories of doing and being that appear in business and our respective post-modern cultures which are very different in subtle but important ways. So this may look really odd from a contemporary point of view, using the categories that people have for the Church, but it’s not. He is the pope; he can do this; he has done this. God watches out for the Church, and He has a plan, and it will be all right.

  26. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Two thoughts about ‘Rome’ as place and name: after the Turkish moslem conquest of Constantinople, the surviving Christians were treated as the ‘Rum millet’, the ‘Roman nation’, ecclesiastical structure very much included.

    R.H. Benson’s futurisic ‘eschatological’ novel, Lord of the World (1907) includes a vivid imaginary answer (variously terrible and comforting).

  27. Andkaras says:

    Fr. Rutler also has a delightful sense of humor. Our group met him at a Call to Holiness Symposium. He was working at a book table so someone could go to lunch.We asked if we could have our picture taken with him ,and he said ” Certainly , But I’m afraid I always come out in black and white.” When we (all long haired women) gathered around him he said ” I’m not used to seeing so much hair.” When asked to autograph a book someone had purchased (Spiritual Exercises ) He quipped “Oh well I don’t suppose St. Ignatius will mind”.

  28. boxerpaws1952 says:

    comment from another site on same topic: “He is dying of congestive heart failure. He already has a pacemaker installed and it’s on it’s last leg.”

Comments are closed.