02/19/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Pope Benedict's Grand Refusal

The unexpected announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will step down from his pontifical duties on Feb. 28 came as a stunning surprise to media observers and Catholic faithful alike. Predictably, theories about what lay behind the move abound, most of them conspiratorial.

My first inclination in responding to this news was not conspiratorial. I am inclined to take the Pontiff at his word, and to assume that this decision is based on his declining physical abilitiess, or declining health, and that these are severe enough to warrant this highly unusual decision. I have seen nothing to support the most conspiratorial interpretation of his announcement, suggesting that his departure confirms that the pope is "giving up" in the wake of all the scandals that have beleaguered his papacy for so many years.

First among these is the sexual abuse scandal that spread like wildfire and refused to abate, suggesting at times the existence of a systemic failure on the part of ecclesiastical officials to take the matter up with sufficient seriousness. Since then-Cardinal Raitzinger was responsible for reviewing all such accusations of priestly impropriety, the pope is intimately, perhaps too intimately, involved in this scandal.

This public relations catastrophe was compounded by repeated verbal missteps -- such as when the pope appeared to suggest that Islam was an unreasonable religion spread by the threat of physical violence, during his notorious address in Regensburg, or after his decision to hold a ceremonial vigil at the site of the Auschwitz camps, where Carmelite nuns had installed a Cross to commemorate their own martyrs, on a site more commonly remembered as a monument to European anti-Semitism and mass death.

In all of this, Pope Benedict XVI has seemed tone-deaf, at times: deaf to the appearance of anti-Semitic and/or anti-Islamic sentiment in his own rhetoric or personal history, deaf to the plaintive cries of Catholic youth victimized by their priests and alleged ecclesial protectors, deaf to the uniquely democratic tones and tenor of modern, western religious life. He has seemed at times more company-man than prophet, putting the interests of the institution before the demands of individuals for social justice, failing to attend sufficiently to the excruciation of confession as the necessary prelude to the miracle of reconciliation.

But Benedict XVI is never deaf, to tone or anything else; he has been quietly tenacious, and dogged in the defense of his own and his Church's actions (or, in some cases, inactions).

One cannot help but wonder, as a result, if he is seriously ill, and has decided to resign in anticipation of a potentially rapid physical decline. I hope that this is not the case, but it would make easiest sense of the sudden and surprising announcement. Benedict XVI is a very private man, which is ironic for someone in his position; if he were indeed seriously ill, then we should expect him to deal with the fact privately, not in public as John Paul II did so endearingly, as he made manifest his own infirmity and rather poignant physical decline.

Another factor to consider is that he never really warmed to the public role at which his predecessor, John Paul II, excelled. John Paul II was a master of the modern media; Benedict XVI was a professor, and his papacy has often been professorial in both tone and tenor. The Vatican Library closed more than once when he announced his desire to pay an impromptu visit. This pope loves books; he writes books, and apparently he has already expressed his intention to spend the coming spring at Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of Roman popes, and then to retire to the Vatican compound in the summer, when his successor comes to the Lake in summertime. Presumably, his ultimate aim is to return to that Library, adjacent to his Church.

It is important not to make to bigger deal of this announcement than it is. The Vatican is an enormous and resilient institution that has weathered matters far more unsettling than this. Popes die and they disappear, sometimes very suddenly. John Paul I died in 1978 after just 33 days in office. The vacant papal seat, or Sede Vacante, is a standard mode for the Vatican bureaucracy, defining how the institution may continue to function in the absence of a leader. Such absences have lasted for years in the not-do-distant past. But by all accounts this vacancy will not: the Conclave is scheduled for March, right after the pope's departure on Feb. 28, and we should expect them to have a new pope installed before the feast of Easter on March 31.

To be sure, an abdication is different than a death; this pope's sudden departure raises the specter of a "King Lear"-type of situation in which a former pope haunts the selfsame hallways as the new pope. Given how comparatively invisible Benedict XVI was as pope, he should not be expected to become a public rival to his successor. But behind the scenes he may be, since defending orthodoxy has been a consistent professional theme for this man, long before he became a pope. One could easily imagine him taking much stronger positions privately, were the next pope shown to be more liberal in his theological proclivities.

And so the real question is this: Who will succeed Benedict XVI? Recall that John Paul I died after less than a month, to be succeeded by the first of two non-Italian popes to preside at the Vatican since the mid-1500s. Those were the early years of the Protestant Reformation, when everything from the selling of indulgences to the collection of Classical Greek statuary became matters of public controversy. Pope Adrian VI, who was Dutch, was mortified when his College of mostly Italians Cardinals took him around for a tour of the new sculpture garden installed by his predecessors on the Belvedere. "Nothing but pagan idols," this Dutch pope is said to have snorted, and he threatened to sell off the entire collection. Adrian VI died within the year. Clearly, conflicts of culture can source relations between a pope and this august ecclesial institution. A native Teuton simply did not take to the sensuality of Italian (or Classical) art.

One strong speculation is that the College of Cardinals will choose someone from South America or sub-Saharan Africa to be the next pope. These are the most culturally conservative regions in the current Catholic world, as well as the main areas of growth and expansion. This makes a kind of practical sense, but I would not be at all surprised to see the Curia return to an Italian, since the kinds of cultural and linguistic differences a foreign pope presents make cultural and theological negotiations rather complicated at a place like the Apostolic Palace.

The Vatican is a very cosmopolitan institution; it is also a very Italian one.

Which brings us, finally, to Dante. The international press has been quick to remind us that Benedict XVI will be the first pope to step down from his position voluntarily since 1415, in the period of the Avignon papacy when there were two popes, and one of the two (the Roman one) finally gave up his position to restore the administrative peace. I do not think that is the papal precedent we should be considering today.

When Pope Celestine V abdicated in 1294, Dante condemned this as "the grand refusal" -- il gran rifiuto (Inferno III, 59), and placed his soul in Hell for it. Later, Dante intensified his condemnation of Pope Celestine V's decision, observing that he gave no care to the keys of the Kingdom that had been entrusted to his care by Christ himself (Inferno XXVII, 105).

That was hardly the unanimous view of the matter. The Church recognized Celestine V as a saint scarcely more than a decade after Dante penned these naughty lines, and it was ironically this pope's very saintliness that inspired him to abdicate in the first place.

His name was Pietro Angeleri da Morrone (or Murrone); he was best known and most admired for his asceticism and hermetic tendencies (his order of "Celestine" hermits were later incorporated into the Rule of St. Benedict). He agreed to take on the purple only because the Sacred Seat had been vacant for two years and three months by then, as political squabbles between full-blooded Romans (six cardinals in the Curia), northern Italians (four more cardinals) and two Frenchmen had made agreement on a new pontiff at the conclave in Perugia impossible. Morrone, already close to 80 years of age at the time was seen as unthreatening, someone everybody could live with. Caring deeply for the Church he loved, and tempted to see his election as a miracle, Morrone agreed. He took the name Celestine V, and "celestial" he tried to remain. Conflicts with less austere clerics were inevitable, and his immediate missteps in the labyrinthine world of papal politics inspired him to withdraw after only five months, as much for the safety of his own soul as anything else. He stepped down on Dec. 13, 1294.

He had tried to reform the most worldly of the Church's woes; he wished to put an end to seemingly endless conflict in the College of Cardinals. On Sept. 18, 1294, Celestine V "stacked" the College, creating 12 new cardinals to shake things up, seven of them French and the rest hailing from Bourbon Naples to the south. Far from fixing anything, the pope's intervention made matters worse. Many believe that this decision, it its privileging of French interests at the papal court, made the temporary removal of the papacy to Avignon in France a century later inevitable. That kind of thing is a real problem, after all: having more than one pope at a time. So the pope who resigned in 1294 made it necessary for another Roman pope to resign in 1415.

If there is a cautionary tale to Celestine V's abdication, then, it is this: Celestine V retired mainly because he wanted to withdraw from the world. He wished to cause no trouble for his successor, Boniface VIII, and seemed simply to want to disappear. He did disappear, for a time, rejoined his fellow hermits in their beloved and semi-secret mountain retreats. But the Church rarely knows what to do with its saints, while they are alive. The papal bureaucracy feared leaving such a free-thinking ascetic unguarded, preferring to keep a potential enemy closer to hand.

So they pursued him, forcing the former Celestine V to make a dramatic escape to Greece. Storms on the Adriatic Sea drove him back to the Italian coast, where he was promptly captured by Boniface's men, and interred in the Castello di Fumone near Anagni. He lived there for nine months, where rumors circulated that he had eventually been murdered.

Whatever the cause, he died on May 19, 1296, and was canonized by Pope Clement V in 1313. His feast day, appropriately enough, commemorates the day he died, withdrawing from the world one last time, and far more permanently.

If Pope Benedict XVI is not gravely ill, as I certainly hope that he is not, then this story seems to provide a far more instructive model for the pope's decision to step down. He is a professor, a writer, a private thinker; he never took to the spotlight, nor to the exhausting circuit of public appearances that modern media have made of the modern papacy. Clearly nostalgic for his student days, studying theology in the Austrian countryside, Pope Benedict XVI has elected to pass out of history much as he stepped into it -- blinking blindly at all the bright lights, never quite certain of how he got there, nor what he was supposed to do with the power he possessed.

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