Ethics Hero: Pope Benedict XVI

Celestine V, the last Pope who resigned because he didn't feel up to the 1294

Celestine V, the last Pope who resigned because he didn’t feel up to the job…in 1294

Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he will resign at the end of the month, saying that at his advanced age and current state of health, he can no longer fulfill his duties adequately.


Now perhaps other aged, infirm, ill and declining men and women in important positions of power that they are increasingly unable to fill will get the message and resign too, giving up perquisites, influence, and celebrity for the good of the organizations and constituencies they serve. The current roster of Americans who should, if they were properly responsible, do “a Benedict” include members of Congress,U.S. Senators, Supreme Court Justices, doctors, lawyers, state legislators, college professors, corporate founders, CEOs, and many more. Staying beyond one’s pull-date is a national epidemic, one of the unintended bad consequences of increased longevity and better health care. A prominent role model to show the way was just what the doctor ordered—one of the young ones, who keeps up-to-date via the internet.

As reasonable and natural as the Pope’s decision seems, it is extremely rare in a position where dying on the job is traditional and expected. No Pope has resigned since Pope Gregory in 1415, and his health had nothing to do with it (Gregory resigned because there were three Popes). A Pope resigning because he believed he wasn’t up to the job is not quite unprecedented, but close, and no wonder. The last Pope who did it, Pope Celestine V after only five months in 1294, got thrown into prison by his successor and was consigned to Hell in Dante’s “Inferno” for “rejecting” the Papacy.

Thus Pope Benedict deserves ethics honors for  taking responsible action that has virtually eluded his predecessors for almost 2000 years. That requires courage, humility and selflessness, as surrendering great power always does. If enough people pay attention, leaving his post might do more good than anything Benedict accomplished while serving in it.

UPDATE: Look! The estimable Chris McDonald has a similar take!


Sources: Slate, Vatican News

Graphic: Fr. Z’s Blog

8 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Pope Benedict XVI

  1. Ethics hero? Perhaps, but Benedict’s decision does point to a not-so-small distinction about how Popes are “chosen,” “papal infallibility,” etc. John Paul II was in frail health toward the end of his life. While I don’t have intimate knowledge of Benedict’s health, publicly, he seems to be in better shape, and he says he is looking forward to “reading and praying” post-Papacy. The point at which these religious leaders can no longer fulfill the physical duties of their office has traditionally fallen on those closest to them: cardinals, bishops, priests, but their role as symbol is still intact. It cannot be assumed that John Paul II had no power even when he was moments from death. In this regard, then, it is the symbol of the papacy that wields the power that is embellished by the personality. John Paul and II were both beloved and revered; Benedict, not so much. And, given the dwindling membership in the Catholic Church along with an over-all diminishing of faith in general, perhaps this resignation signals a larger issue that will “inspire” the cardinals to choose a new Pope who will energize and empower a core population still devoted to the faith in large number; one who is Hispanic.

    • Pope Benedict XVI an “Ethics Hero”?

      Does the name “Peter Hullermann” mean anything to you? He was a (Church protected) child predator Priest reassigned to the Diocese of Munich while Joseph Ratzinger was Archbishop there. In 1980 Ratzinger allowed Hullermann safe-haven to work among children even though the Priest had admitted to sexually abusing a boy as far back as 1979. Long story short, Hullermann was transferred several times over the next 30 years, against Drs Orders, and continued to work among children despite countless complaints from parents and others over his persistant inappropriate and criminal behavior with minors. He was only removed from duty in 2010 after intense media pressure, public outrage and a breaking scandal.

      Upon his appointment to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), Ratzinger was charged with overseeing the worldwide Church’s response to alledged sexual abuse of children by Clergy and Religious. At this point, he became responsible for where accused Priests, Brothers (and occasionally even Nuns) from all over the world were assigned while charges against them were pending, as well as when/if they were ultimately to be defrocked/laicized. Time after time, just as in the Hullermann case, Ratzinger looked the other way, and ended by favoring protection of the abuser rather than his/her victims.

      Sometimes local Bishops (such as Donald Wuerl and Rembert Weakland) had to beg the Congregation over a period of years for approval to remove suspected abusers from the Priesthood. Of course, the Church’s precious Image was at stake, so this was mighty slow-going as pay-offs were negotiated in order to silence victims, and keep perpetrators out of the News. When he was named as a co-conspirator in a Texas abuse case, Benedict XVI lawyered-up and claimed Diplomatic Immunity as a Head of State!

      Popes do NOT retire. The same people who were praising John Paul II’s dedication, and inspirational service in his final years of suffering, are now doing a 180, and praising Pope Benedict for knowing when to get out and make room for progress! The Holy Spirit does indeed blow in any direction He will. . .

      In wake of the Mahoney files being released last week, and the high holiday season about to begin, this resignation announcement is certainly suspicious, at least. More likely, it is the oft-repeated pattern of Church inertia being finally moved into action by public disclosure of information that was previously thought to be vaulted in secrecy. Those who have been victimized by the Congregation that was supposed to protect them from such criminals certainly don’t see Benedict XVI as a “Hero” of any kind. They are, more likely, waiting– like me– for the other Shoe (of the Fisherman) to drop.

      Full disclosure: I am a practicing Catholic. I love my Church, but I am sick to DEATH of the lies and cover-ups concocted to protect a bunch of loathesome criminals. They have already cost us hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of souls, and untold suffering by the innocent abused at the hands of their despicable abusers.

      • I cannot find anything in your post to which I disagree, nor do I find fault with your report of the historical record, and I call myself a “recovering Catholic” (so please do not take offense). When I posted “ethics hero?” I leaned towards “perhaps” within the context of Mr. Marshall’s original post (ie, a person leaving a position before they are completely unable to perform their “duties.”) I am no longer practicing or believing within any faith, but I still have respect for some within the Church (such as Richard McBrien who has an excellent mind and wrote the “still not viewed as canonical” book, “Catholicism.” Thank you for your impassioned and articulate post~

        • I am not nearly as well-informed on this subject as Evangeline or Finnegan, but my first reaction to the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation was, “Hmmm…..wonder what heinous fact is about to hit the news to stir up some soul-tainting scandal for His Holiness or someone under him?” Now, call me a cynic, but I can’t fathom someone breaking protocol that has existed for centuries (in one of the more rigid of all religious ideologies) without something suspicious going on. On the positive side of the coin, I want to agree that resigning BEFORE one is mentally or physically incapacitated is indeed an ethical act. If only more people in positions of power would have the courage to do such a thing, for the good of the people….. But, alas, my cynicism wins out.

      • Jack has noted repeatedly that the ethics hero award is applied to a particular piece of conduct, not to the person’s full lifetime of conduct. For instance, Obama has been both an ethics hero and ethics dunce, repeatedly.

  2. Pingback: Pope Benedict XVI - Knowing when it is time to go….somewhere else « Ethics Blog

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