Pope Benedict XVI announced on February 11, 2013 he is leaving office. The reason he gave for reaching this decision is as follows:
in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary. Strength which has in the past few months deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity adequately to fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
This came as quite a surprise to me and to many other people across the world. It is commonly understood that once elected pope, the holder stays in office for life. While I am no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, I maintain an interest in the Church, her history, doctrines and current theological discussions.
While Pope Benedict is generally seen as conservative, if not reactionary, I think in reaching this decision, he continues the effort of his predecessors since Pope John XXIII in trying to reconcile the Church with modernity. He is true to his faith in Christ and remains devoted to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. At 85 years of age and declining health he is stepping down for the good of the Church. In the history of the institution, there has been no shortage of popes who were more concerned with their own power than the welfare of the Church. Pope Alexander VI who reigned from 1492-1503, is likely the most notorious. Pope Alexander, who was really Rodrigo Borgia. led a less than exemplary Christian life. This quote from J. Frater sums up his “character” very nicely:
Alexander VI had three sons in addition to his famous daughter Lucrezia. During his pontificate virtually everything he did was to further the position of his children and family in the world. In order to dominate the Sacred College of Cardinals more completely, Alexander, in a move that created much scandal, created twelve new cardinals, among them his own son Cesare, then only eighteen years old, and Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III), the brother of one of the Pope’s mistresses, the beautiful Giulia Farnese.
I expect in retirement Pope Benedict will live out his days in solitude, maintaining his piety privately. He will refrain from involving himself in the affairs of the Church. To be honest I really paid little attention during his reign. I was more concerned with him when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He first came to my attention in this capacity in publishing the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons in October, 1986. The tone of the document is not overly hostile, but it maintains “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” I was Confirmed in the Catholic Church just prior to the publication of this pastoral letter at the Easter Vigil in Saint Thomas More Parish in Kingston, Ontario in 1986. Having just been accepted as a young gay man into the Church and still coming to terms with my sexual orientation, this came as a slap in the face. Like many young gay people, I had a very hard time understanding and accepting my sexual orientation. I tried to ignore and suppress it to no avail.
That the thesis of this pastoral letter is in error was pointed out to me immediately and challenges from Roman Catholic moral theologians were soon published. The Vatican and homosexuality: reactions to the “Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons” is a very good source for those of you reading this post who are interested in learning more about these challenges. It is edited by Jeannine Gramick and Pat Furey and published by Crossroad in 1988. In spite of these challenges, Cardinal Ratzinger never softened his position. He weighed in on the issue of same sex marriage in 2003 in the publication of Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons. In this document he concludes:
The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself.
As with his prior pronouncement concerning the pastoral care of homosexual persons, the argument put forth in this document was challenged by Roman Catholic moral theologians and lay Catholics. Paul Lakeland, a professor of religion and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, a Catholic university in Connecticut and Frederick Parrella, a professor of theology at Santa Clara University, a Catholic institution in California are among those who dissent in arguing “as far as civil marriage is concerned, what the church should be saying is, ‘It’s none of our business.’” In addition, a Gallup poll undertaken in the United States in 2012 surveying attitudes toward same sex marriage showed in its findings that 51% of Catholics think it should be legal, while 47% think it should not. Yet just as before, Cardinal Ratzinger remained unmoved by these challenges. His point of view did not change when he was elected Pope Benedict XVI following the death of his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2005.
As a gay man in a long term relationship I still feel the sting of his obstinance in perpetuating these egregious teachings concerning homosexuality and same sex marriage, particularly so where the institutional Church adds its voice to those who vociferously oppose efforts on the part of governments to extend marriage rights to same sex couples. Even in retirement, Benedict eggs me on in my effort to stand up for the civil rights of gay people in all societies. However, as Pope Benedict prepares to leave office and spend the twilight of his life away from Church politics, I wish him well.
Posted by Geoffrey