Being the first pontiff to preside over any serious examination into clergy abuse, along with a humility that allows him to give up title as Pope, is to Benedict XVI’s credit.
After leading the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics for some eight years, Pope Benedict XVI, age 85, made a courageous decision to step down and let someone else take the reins of the Catholic Church.
The last day of Benedict XVI’s papacy is today, February 28. His stepping down represents the first time in 598 years of the church’s nearly 2000-year existence that a pontiff is resigning. Speculation and conspiracies aside, the act of deciding to break with centuries old tradition — reigning as the pope until natural death — is indicative of a keen consideration and evolving wisdom for the realities of governing a growing, changing, and — yes, damaged — church.
The troubled reputation of Catholicism after a continuing, decades-long scandal in the form of clergy sex abuse and the subsequent inaction of some superiors is, tragically, one of the realities the present church must grapple with. But to the credit of Pope Benedict, the issue of priestly abuse began to receive some serious and desperately needed attention under his watch. The Irish church, for instance, was a particularly egregious case of clergy misconduct, with inquiries by the Archdiocese of Dublin into the matter uncovering a ghastly pattern of abuse stretching back to 70 years.
The response from Pope Benedict was something that even the survivors (who have every right to take anything the Catholic leadership says grudgingly) called “unprecedented” and “encouraging.”
That Pope Benedict openly, unambiguously apologized through a pastoral letter to the victims and directed the guilty to “answer before God and properly constituted tribunals for the sinful and criminal actions they have committed” may not at first seem extraordinary. But in light of the church’s resistance to shed light on this sorry chapter of its history — which includes an insistence to keep church matters out the hands of the law — this was a promising move toward healing that, previously, was not forthcoming in the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict made this happen.
A second item to Pope Benedict’s credit, at least in the eyes of the Foghorn, is not any one accomplishment, stance, or statement; this is a debate to be had on other venues. Rather, the focus should be on the difficulty, moral and personal understanding, and prudence in the pope’s decision to step down.
Smack in the line of a seemingly entrenched tradition of living out the papacy to one’s death, the pope had the presence of mind to determine that world’s Catholics were better served with a more able leader. To make this decision in the face of staunch tradition could not have been easy, especially for a pontiff whose mark on the Church will likely be his traditionalism. A more general precedent in the Curch of wisdom even as tradition suggests otherwise may have been set by Pope Benedict XVI, and it’s an encouraging sign.