Paolo Flores d’Arcais wrote a breathtaking blog post for the New York Review of Books. It’s one of the most trenchant attempts to interpret Benedict XVI’s resignation that I’ve read. He explores the theological implications of a Spirit-inspired Vicar of Christ on Earth saying that he is too old to continue in his divinely appointed task. Is the Holy Spirit not able to strengthen him and the church during a time of mortal weakness?
This is a weighty question, to be sure. But what intrigued me even more is d’Arcais’s speculation that in the face of raging power struggles that are bringing the Church to her knees, Benedict decided to surrender. To scamper off to Castel Gandolfo and after that to a former convent. Too old and feeble to fight, the now Pope Emeritus chose to pray.
But should we equate prayer with surrender? The author of Ephesians writes:
We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood alone. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places (6:12, The Voice).
Possibly, Benedict had this passage in mind when he received the report he commissioned in the wake of the “Vatileaks scandal.” Scheming priests, money laundering bankers, and blackmailing bishops – they are just bit players in a much bigger game. Their sins would take some doing to unravel but the real challenge would be addressing the evil that propels them. That’s something that no pope, no matter how physically fit, is able to do on his own.
At this point – emotionally dead, physically frail, and spiritually tired – perhaps Benedict thought of Christ at Gethsemane. After his closest friends failed him and a trusted advisor betrayed him, Jesus faced his own death. The Pope may have seen similarities between his circumstances and those of his Lord. Intriguingly, Christ responded to all this by retreating in prayer.
If we keep reading we find that after this night of passionate petition Jesus went to his death and, as the Gospels confess, death was defeated in resurrection. Jesus didn’t surrender to pray, he prayed to continue the fight. But it was a fight that was won through self-sacrifice and persistent – defiant, even – prayer.
To many, Benedict’s decision seems like a foolhardy act of cowardice at best and a negligent abdication of his religious duty at worst. He gave up at a time when the church needed him the most. Yet, it might be that, in Benedict’s mind, he was taking the fight to a whole other level.