In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement of his resignation, effective Feb. 28 at 8 p.m., University of Dayton faculty members have offered insight and perspective on this historic event for the Catholic Church.
Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, M.H.S.H., expressed that she initially “was surprised, but not surprised.”
“Having a sense of recent church history this does not surprise me,” Zukowski said. “This is not the first time a pope has contemplated retirement. Pope Paul VI discussed it and Pope John Paul II alluded to it. It is not a new idea. It was a surprise because it happened so quickly.”
Miguel Diaz, university Professor of Faith and Culture and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, expressed a similar reaction and cited his personal observations of the pope during his time at the Vatican.
“I was not shocked,” Diaz said. “It comes as surprise, but I had seen his physical body and had witnessed how his schedule was curtailed. It took him more energy to do his duties. There were good days and bad days.”
Diaz also highlights the enormous significance of the pope’s actions in terms of “humanizing the papacy.”
“He recognizes that the human person was both created for the infinite and the limited,” Diaz said. “By stepping down, he has given permission to himself and to other popes to say that when human circumstances prevent you from performing the ministry, it is ok to step down.”
William Portier, a religious studies professor and the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology, said that Benedict’s retirement offers another alternative for future popes.
“He had witnessed the long decline into death of Pope John Paul II,” Portier said. “With his resignation, Pope Benedict leaves to his successors an alternative to the precedent set by John Paul II, whose own conscience did not permit him to resign the office to which he had been called by God.”
Zukowski said that the decision could also influence the cardinals that will meet in conclave to elect the next pope during Holy Week.
“There are many people who thought it was unfair for [Pope Benedict XVI] to have to be in the public forum, to have the media around him all the time,” she said. “He wants a strong image of the church leaders.”
According to Zukowski, of the 206 cardinals, 117 are under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. She says it would be interesting to know how Pope Benedict’s actions will affect their choice for the next pope and whether or not age will be a major factor.
Michael Carter, a history professor, stressed that Pope Benedict’s actions do not necessarily set any kind of precedent for future popes.
“Retirement from office has always been something within a pope’s rights to do,” Carter said. “Most popes have historically lived well into their eighties and even beyond. Pope Leo XIII, for example, died at the age of 93 in 1903. Several popes in history have decided to resign the office – Gregory XII in 1415, and before that, Celestine V in 1294. Those did not set precedents, so I see no reason why Benedict’’s would. The papacy is the oldest institution in the world, so it’s important to keep a very broad historical perspective on anything a single pope does.”
Diaz said that there are three major distinctions that Pope Benedict will be remembered for besides his retirement: his devotion to bridging society and religion, his awareness about the environment and his deeply academic and theological nature, highlighted in his three encyclicals and other papal writings that will all be lasting contributions
to the church.