Early this morning, Joseph Ratzinger—ahem, still Pope Benedict XVI—announced he would be retiring from the papacy at the age of 85. This is news not only because all papal comings-and-goings are news, but because the last time somebody quit (willingly) as Pope, it was 1294 and he burned in hell (according to Dante) for the trouble. The last time a Pope didn’t die in office was 1415, when Gregory XII was forced out.
Benedict-for-now says he’s shedding the robe for health reasons, though there was of course inevitable snickering about the possibility of looming scandal. To get to the botton of the papal intrigue, I reached out to Philly’s best-sourced Vatican chronicler, Rocco Palmo, who runs the respected blog Whispers in the Loggia.
I don’t mean to be cynical about this, but let me ask: Do you buy the Pope’s resignation explanation?
Yeah. Of course. Benedict’s been talking about resigning practically since [since he became Pope 7 years ago]. He talked about it openly [and] through symbolic gestures.
The last time a Pope retired was 1294 and Dante cast him into hell. Pope Celestine. Benedict in 2009 went to Celestine’s tomb and laid the symbol of his office—the Pallium—on Celestine’s tomb. Those of us who follow this every day—it was his way of saying this thought has been on his mind.
Why is he retiring now? Does he have medical problems, or is he just getting old?
People in Rome have told me he needed a hip replacement, but he didn’t want to go through the recovery process (as Pope). I was talking to a Cardinal who said his coloring was off. Looked like kind of old man gray. So the warning signs were there.
He mentioned not being able to keep up with the job’s strenuous demands. Like what?
In terms of travel, in the 1400s you could keep a sick Pope in his bedroom for a year. The fact is [constant travel] is our reality now. Remember, the Pope, whether it was Benedict or his successor, was supposed to come to Philly in 2015. He brought into its modern age, realistic epoch, that you can’t necessarily be Pope for life.
John Paul II had a very different concept of it. John Paul’s spirituality was such that he said, ‘God called me to this, when God wants me to stop being Pope, he’ll end my Pontificate with my death.’ But the nuts-and-bolts job of governing the church ground to a halt for the five years [before he died]. Benedict said, ‘I don’t want to put the Church through that again.’
What about the inevitable rumors? People have been talking sex abuse scandal already.
I’ll put it bluntly: That’s bullshit. He’s the fourth oldest Pope in history.
Any other whispers in the Loggia?
Um, there’s always political machinations in the Vatican. There was a huge scandal last year (Vatileaks), and the joke that went around that the Vatican had become as leaky as a sieve. So the question now has been, can anybody keep a secret? Well, we have our answer. [New York Archbishop Timothy] Dolan said he was stunned. [But] a lot of us … have talked about it, or kicked the thought of [his retirement] around for a while.
(Translation: Looks like there wasn’t a scandal, as Benedict’s made no secret of his plans, but now that we know the Vatican can keep a secret, who knows?)
What’s next? Does Benedict revert to cardinal status? Is he just Joe?
We’re still trying to figure it out. We know he will live in the Vatican walls. He knows that basically he has to fade away to not rival his successor. In 1294—I’ll tell you I haven’t been able to study it up—I think Celestine went to a monastery, but again 1294 was a different world than today.
(Note: It’s worse: Celestine was locked in a castle for 10 months, where he died.)
Who do you think will succeed him?
This has changed the ballgame—use this line for the basketball fans—we’re all going to have to get our brackets ready—it’s going to be a March Madness conclave [scheduled for mid-March].