As speculation spreads on the forthcoming papal conclave in Rome, scholars at Emory have diverse views on Pope Benedict XVI’s motivation for resigning, but agree that it marks a turning point in the leadership role of the papacy.
“Some of the debate at the moment has to do with the question of whether you can separate the office from the officeholder, and Pope Benedict’s decision seems to be that you can,” says Philip Reynolds, Aquinas Professor of Theology at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.
In the Middle Ages, when many popes were notable for political infighting and, to put it politely, not well loved, the distinction between the office and the person was more widely understood, according to Reynolds. “You didn’t worry that this person was also the head of the church; that was not necessarily regarded as a problem,” he says.
The idea that a leader’s position and personal life are closely linked is a modern idea, says Reynolds, fueled by intense and instantaneous publicity. “Now it’s much more difficult to distinguish the person from the office,” he observes. Charismatic pontiffs such as John XXIII and John Paul II have fueled the concept that the person and office are synonymous.
Nevertheless, Reynolds was surprised at the reaction from some Catholics who expressed distress and disappointment at the pope’s resignation, “this sense that a spiritual leader always has to be a spiritual leader and can’t cease to be that.”
But the pope is not just a spiritual leader, says Reynolds. He is also “the CEO of an incredibly complicated and today a fantastically fraught organization.”
And that organization, governed by canon law, clearly stipulates when and how papal succession takes place. Pope Benedict, with his lifelong pursuit as a scholar, obviously thought about and acted upon that knowledge.
What is required for a pope to resign?
“The choice must be freely made and he must have his full mental faculties,” says Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign may have been influenced by witnessing the decline of Pope John Paul II; commentators have speculated about that recent chapter as a factor in the current pope’s decision.
“In 2010, Pope Benedict indicated that he thought that a pope could resign and might even have a duty to resign,” says Thompson. “His resignation statement indicates that the office requires mental and physical vigor of a kind that he indicated were deteriorating in him.”
Thomist or Augustinian?
If Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine are considered the two major touchstones of Catholic theology, Pope Benedict in his resignation statement revealed himself as more of an Augustinian, says Thompson, “someone to whom reason is important but who also embraces the emotional dimension of reaching up to God.”
“While John Paul II and Benedict XVI would come to similar conclusions, they would get there through different theological processes,” Thompson observes. ” Benedict’s first book as pope, on the nature of the love of God, is written in an Augustinian tone. That is very much the center of who he is and how he views things.”
Whether CEO or spiritual leader, Thomist or Augustinian, Pope Benedict XVI will leave the spotlight and influence to others after stepping aside, says Steffen Losel, associate professor in the practice of systematic theology at Candler. “He is much too wise of a person and theologian to try to actively influence the choice of his successor. I think the wording of his resignation indicates his intention.”
Losel and Thompson also point out that most of the cardinals who will be considered during upcoming papal conclave are ideologically aligned with Pope Benedict already.
Yet the prospect of a new pontiff still resonates with the faithful, says Thompson. “It will be interesting to see the emphasis and influence his successor will have over time.”
Reynolds agrees that time is the ultimate arbiter when it comes to the role of the papacy. “It’s a very long story, and the shifting visions of what the papacy is will continue to evolve.”