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It seems like a natural gesture and yet it is labelled as a historic one. An elderly man decides to step down from a very prominent office due to old age. Nothing more simply to accept in today’s world, when life tenure is so rare. Democracy has caused mentality to adjust to the natural perception of retirement. So why is a Pope’s gesture received with so much astonishment? The Catholic Church is, de facto and de jure, a monarchy of divine right. On the other hand, the Papality is an institution with a historic evolution. There is a difference between the first bishops of heathen Rome, those during the barbarian invasion times, medieval and modern ones. Even between the modern ones there are notable differences. The Papality is not such a rigid institution as it may look. Even if it has always counted on conservationism in its positive meaning involving a construction on fundaments verified by the flow of centuries, the Catholic Church has faced quite diverse historical situations, driving it to certain responses, some inspired, others not so.
Some people are tempted to look at history in a simplistic manner, like a rise followed by a fall. But who would have expected the media prestige gained by Wojtila at a time of widest secularisation, just to give an example? Even the so much challenged ‘papal infallibility’ was a reaction to a historical context, that, in a certain way, strengthened Catholic unity in a world that, although was become very global from a civilisation point of view, was still prey to bloody ruptures (remember the nationalism outbursts that led to two bellic hecatombs). Despite his nature, Benedict XVI could not have been a discreet Pope. The lesson of his predecessor could have not been ignored. Like Wojtila, Ratzinger used the word – the most tremendous weapon the Church has – to demonstrate the vitality of theology. He descended into the concreteness of issues, trying to impose his own perspective on Catholicism (integrating himself into polyphony, of course, for no Pope has ever claimed intellectual monopoly), combining – as the evangelic text says – `the old and the new’. It is by no means an easy thing to be convincing in this Babel of global world opinions. Like his predecessor, Ratzinger tried to encourage a less courageous assumption of creativity of Christian philosophy, without seeking cosy shelter in the much too airy world of cathedra theology, but also not in the autarchy of ‘spiritual retreats’ or the pragmatism – often too critical – of Vatican’s politics. His texts are those of a man who has the intellectual and moral responsibility of the thought through word. Even if his positions do raise convergence of opinions or reserved stands, what counts is the care to avoid all rhetoric. This is a lesson to an Orthodox patriarch who at times even takes pride in speaking the language of the old Byzantium. But why has Benedict XVI retired? The answer is less important compared to the consequences of his gesture. Some anticipate them as historic, which could, however, turn out to be an overstatement. There must have been multiple reasons behind this decision, and the age issue is definitely not it. It is a choice made by an aware and responsible man. Retirement doesn’t mean recall, and the step would be huge. Even if pressure is put for a new ‘resignation’ in the future, in the name of the precedent just set, any such instance would be an exception more than a rule. The papal office will continue to be a life tenure, in principle, first of all for strategic reasons, otherwise there would be a permanent instability with unavoidable consequences upon the pastorship. Nonetheless, at the same time, Ratzinger’s gesture is consistent with the ‘personalised’ trend he has theologically upheld during his entire life. The Church is made of people, even if those people have ecclesiastic responsibilities. No one is irreplaceable and they can all make mistakes, become powerless or give up. Benedict XVI is not quitting with some major guilt on his conscience and the balance sheet of his term is not a negative one (realistically speaking, considering what someone in his positions could have done under given conditions). But perhaps the most significant meaning of this move is the consideration on the boundaries of the ‘monarchy of divine right’. Like in Wojtila’s case, it has been considered that the ‘enlightened despot’ can do a lot. That is not true and Benedict XVI’s ‘failures’ should be seen as a failed convergence of the multiple levels of a Church (Greek word ‘eclesia’ means ‘assembly’) which, before being a pyramid, is a communion. How lonely has he felt as the Pope?