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Something Wicked This Way Comes

Pope Benedict XVI Abdicates

Christopher A. Ferrara POSTED:  2/11/13


( It has been my great privilege to write for this venerable journal regarding some of the most important events in recent Church history, including the election of Pope Benedict XVI, which Michael Matt and I were fortunate enough to witness in Rome itself beneath the very balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica. But how does one gather his wits on such short notice to offer a useful assessment of an event as epochal as the abdication of a Roman Pontiff, and in particular this Pontiff, whose dramatic gestures have favorably altered the landscape of our devastated ecclesial commonwealth in ways we could only hope for during the long and increasingly ruinous pontificate of John Paul “the Great.”

Two questions immediately present themselves: Can a Pope resign, that is, abdicate, and why did Pope Benedict do so? The first is easily answered, at least technically. As the Catholic Encyclopedia observes: “Like every other ecclesiastical dignity, the papal throne may also be resigned.”  Indeed, “[t]he reasons which make it lawful for a bishop to abdicate his see, such as the necessity or utility of his particular church, or the salvation of his own soul, apply in a stronger manner to the one who governs the universal church.” And while there is no higher earthly authority to which a Pope can tender his resignation, “he himself by the papal power can dissolve the spiritual marriage between himself and the Roman Church.” We can dispense by anticipation with any contrary canonical arguments we can expect hear from the amateur canonists of the Internet. None other than Pope Boniface VIII, that great exemplar of the papal supremacy, decreed the inherent capacity of a Pope to resign his own office, which decree is codified in the Corpus Juris Canonici (Cap. Quoniam I, de renun., in 6).

So, technically and logically at least a Pope has the capacity to renounce his own office as Vicar of Christ. And the abdication of a Pope, while exceedingly rare, is not unprecedented. There are several examples, including the well-known abdication of Pope Celestine V in 1294. One case is particularly striking: Pope Benedict IX (1033-44), who “had long caused scandal to the Church by his disorderly life, freely renounced the pontificate and took the habit of a monk,” to be succeeded by Clement II. (Benedict IX attempted to reclaim the papal throne after Clement’s death, but evidently failed in the endeavor).

But the abdication of Benedict XVI appears to be sui generis—a purely discretionary decision by a pontiff who is neither incapacitated nor under some objective duty to resign on account of, say, personal scandal or a contested election that has thrown the Church into turmoil, as we see with the abdication of Pope Gregory XII during the Great Western Schism. Quite the contrary, by all appearances, including the elegant text of his own statement of resignation, the Pope retains to the full his intellectual acuity and suffers from no life-threating medical condition, as the Vatican itself insists.

Why, then, did Benedict XVI abdicate, and so suddenly? The proffered explanation of declining health and strength, which has afflicted any number of Popes who remained in office until God called them, would suggest a Pope who has simply failed in the virtue of perseverance and done something contemptible. (Dante for this reason places Pope Celestine in Hell.) But charity counsels that we seek another explanation. Hilary White of Life Site News has pointed me to the view of theologian Brian Flanagan, who opines that the Pope’s “resignation” reflects a two-fold rationale: “the possible practical benefits of having a younger man… at the helm, preventing the administrative and bureaucratic mayhem of the last years of John Paul’s papacy, [and] this move symbolically brings the papacy down to its proper size. The papacy can now be clearly seen as a crucial office of the universal church, but one in which the pope remains an officeholder, rather than an irreplaceable, magical figure.”

I think Flanagan may have it have half right: the Pope has abdicated because he perceives that he is simply unable to mitigate any further the ecclesial chaos John Paul “the Great” left behind after the vast crowds had dispersed and their rowdy cheers of “Santo Subito” had faded away. I believe—or at least I want to believe—that Benedict sees as the only hope for an ecclesial restoration the elevation of a younger, fitter conservative to the Throne of Peter. I also believe that Benedict has concluded that if he were to remain in office for several years to come, something disastrous would happen that a more vigorous successor, if elected now, might be able to avert—about which more in a moment.

In assessing this hypothesis we must begin with the Pope’s extraordinary statement of abdication—the first of its kind in Church history—to see what we can see. Given the enormous historical importance of the document, I set it forth entirely here:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.  For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

From the Vatican, 10 February 2013

The first clue the document provides about what is really going on is that it was issued during a Consistory convoked for the canonizations of saints of the pre-Vatican II epoch: First, the martyrs Antonio Primaldo and 799 companions, beheaded at Otranto, Italy in 1480 by invading Turkish soldiers after they refused to convert to Islam. (It is said that the headless body of Primaldo, a humble tailor, stood erect and could not be toppled until every last of one his companions had been martyred.) Second, Laura di Santa Caterina da Siena Montoya y Upegui (1874-1949), the virgin foundress of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, who led a mission to convert the Indians of Latin America. Third, Maria Guadalupe García Zavala (1878-1963), foundress of the Handmaids of St. Margaret Mary and the Poor and a victim of the Mexican government’s persecution of the Catholic Church.

Tellingly, what appear to be Pope Benedict’s final three acts of canonization—generally acknowledged by theologians to be an infallible act of the Magisterium because it establishes a cult for the universal Church—involved only classic candidates for sainthood. Their heroic virtues were patent and were accompanied by the highest fidelity to their stations in the Church. This is quite unlike the non-infallible beatification of John Paul II, establishing only a local cult in the dioceses of Rome and Krakow (although this crucial distinction was promptly ignored). Concerning this beatification, Vatican spokesmen offered the astonishing rationale that “Pope John Paul II is being beatified not because of his impact on history or on the Catholic Church, but because of the way he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love... John Paul II is being beatified for holiness, not his papacy….” A Pope whose beatification had nothing to do with his pontificate, and yet is called “the Great,” is another of the innumerable oddities that litter the post-conciliar landscape of the Church.

Now, Pope Benedict’s abdication is to take effect a mere seventeen days from today, on February 28, 2013 at precisely 8 p.m. This means that Benedict will avoid the dubious canonization of John Paul II and the simply absurd beatification of Paul VI. The steamroller driving toward those vexatious events, sweeping aside all reasonable objections, has suddenly been stopped dead in its tracks.  Did the Pope abdicate, at least in part, to slow down John Paul II’s saint-making machine, which was threatening to canonize the Council of which Benedict himself (in his more candid moments) has been so critical?  We may be permitted to think so.

Consider: Benedict might have been wrestling with the propriety of raising John Paul to the altars of the universal Church and declaring Paul VI a beatus, thus placing his papal imprimatur on what he himself, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, described as a post-conciliar “process of decay”—a process only Pope Benedict has done anything to reverse since the Council. Yet, Benedict was also under tremendous pressure from “conciliarist” forces to perform both acts in order to shore up the collapsing credibility of the conciliar aggiornamento. At this very moment, the trickle of traditionalist critiques is becoming a torrent of criticism by respectable theologians of the mainstream, as the “spirit” of the Council wanes while its disastrous effects become too obvious to explain away any longer. (See, for example, the posthumously revealed commentary by the eminent non-traditionalist theologian Fr. Divo Barsotti, whose diary records this damning assessment: “I am perplexed with regard to the Council: the plethora of documents, their length, often their language, these frightened me. They are documents that bear witness to a purely human assurance more than to a simple firmness of faith.”)

Thus, we can surmise that Benedict faced a dilemma: If he simply refused to exercise the papal primacy to canonize the Council, he would be met with a storm of outrage from conciliarist militants. But if he yielded to pressure and proceeded with those acts, he would have to answer to his own conscience and ultimately to the Judge of us all. Fearing that he would be unable to resist the pressure to perform the ceremonies demanded and already arranged, awaiting only his approving act, he might have concluded that his best course of action was to jump off the steamroller before it could reach its destination.  It stands to reason that if Benedict were at all committed to the idea of “Saint John Paul II the Great” and “Blessed Paul VI,” he would have remained in office at least long enough to perform the necessary papal acts.  Yet he has left office, in a purely discretionary manner, just as those acts were slated to occur—during the ironically designated “Year of Faith” that is taking place in the midst of the “silent apostasy” that is our inheritance from the previous two pontificates.

Or perhaps, even if this was not the Pope’s conscious intent, the Holy Ghost has intervened by prompting him to abdicate rather than inflicting further damage to the Church by acceding to the Council’s canonization via improvident acts of the Magisterium. As this newspaper noted in a recent news item, it does appear to be a miracle that, just days ago, the seemingly imminent canonization of John Paul II was abruptly postponed until at least 2014. Was that postponement Pope Benedict’s doing in anticipation of his abdication? Did he act under the influence of the Holy Ghost? These are reasonable questions in view of the shocking decision by a reigning Roman Pontiff to renounce his office even though he is neither physically nor mentally incapacitated.

Benedict’s statement does cite his awareness of his own declining mental and physical state, but these are only the normal consequences of aging. If the italicized sentences are read carefully in context, however, they provide key indications of why the Pope has abdicated in the circumstances peculiar to his pontificate. While still physically and mentally sound, he feels himself too weak of mind as well as body to confront “questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” and “to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel…”

Here we confront what I believe the Pope must know but we do not: that something wicked this way comes. Has Pope Benedict been driven from office by the wolves he feared when his Pontificate began?  Recall his momentous words in the sermon during the Mass for what the conciliar neo-modernists refuse to call his coronation, but rather an “inauguration,” as if the Pope were a mere elected official:  “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” Among the wolves are, as always, the numberless external enemies of the Church, many of whom demanded precisely that he resign. The apostate Sinead O’Connor is typical of these.  Pointing to the sex-abuse scandals that racked the pontificate of John Paul “the Great,” O’Connor declared that “Benedict is in no position to call himself Christ’s representative. The pope should stand down…”

But we can be certain that the wolves the Pope has in view are preeminently the ones nearest to him, encircling him within the very confines of a Vatican bureaucracy that has crushed the monarchical papacy under the massive machinery of an ecclesiastical democracy installed during the post-conciliar revolution, with its “collegiality” and its “reform” of the Roman Curia. I am reminded here of Bishop Fellay’s revelation that during his audience with Pope Benedict at Castel Gondolfo in August 2005, he pleaded with the Pope to take action to restore the Church fully: “You are the Pope!” said Bishop Fellay (in substance) when the two of them were left alone for a moment. But the Pope, pointing to the door of the room in which the audience took place, replied forlornly: “My authority ends at that door.”

And what is outside that door?  The wolves in the Pope’s own household. The Pope himself confirms a veritable overthrow of the papacy to the extent such is humanly possible. Seen in this light, the Pope’s unprecedented discretionary abdication takes on an apocalyptic aspect. And it was Benedict himself who made it a point to link his situation precisely to the apocalyptic Third Secret of Fatima.  During his pilgrimage to Fatima two years ago Benedict revealed what the Secret in its entirety foretells, which is more than what we see in the vision published in 2000 standing alone:

Beyond this great vision of the suffering of the Pope… are indicated future realities of the Church which are little by little developing and revealing themselves.… Thus it is true beyond the moment indicated in the vision, it is spoken, it is seen, the necessity of a passion of the Church that naturally is reflected in the person of the Pope; but the Pope is in the Church, and therefore the sufferings of the Church are what is announced...

As for the novelty that we can discover today in this message, it is that attacks on the Pope and the Church do not come only from outside, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from sins that exist in the Church. This has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies outside, but arises from sin in the Church.

In light of these statements one must ask: What does the Pope know that he has been constrained not to tell us?  Why does he speak of terrifying “future realities” that are developing “little by little” without telling us what they are?  Does he know, for example, why, as we see in the vision, a future Pope meets his end atop a hill outside a ruined city filled with the dead, from which he has escaped only to be executed by a band of soldiers? Has he read the words of the Virgin that would clarify the vision’s post-apocalyptic scenario? (Only a fool would think that the Mother of God assigned to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State who covered up the Father Maciel scandal, the task of “interpreting” a vision she herself must have explained quite clearly.) Are the Virgin’s words intimated in the Pope’s statement that “beyond the moment indicated in the vision” the details of a terrifying future are “spoken,” not merely seen? What part of the Secret is beyond the moment indicated in the vision if not a text that speaks where the vision is silent?

Whatever the Pope sees coming must be the motive for his abdication, unless we are willing to conclude that he simply wearied of his office and decided in his weakness to abandon it.  No, there must be more.  I echo the sentiments of the Editor in concluding that Pope Benedict has sacrificed himself to the wolves, lying down in front of them while they sniff the corpse of his pontificate in puzzlement, surprised by their ultimately easy prey, and momentarily distracted from what may already have been put in motion respecting the next conclave.

Benedict, we can suppose, has placed his hope in the Holy Ghost and the election of a successor who might resist where he can no longer resist, repel what he can no longer repel, restore in full what he no longer has the strength to recover in full from those who have kept it from us—including, one must say, the two ill-starred predecessors it is insanely proposed to exalt as among the greatest of Popes.  This seems to be what Pope Benedict is saying when he declares, surely in the light of Fatima: “let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff.”

All of this, of course, is speculation. But reasonable speculation is all we have in the face of this astounding and frightening development. The Pope who, whatever his failings, ended the diabolical suppression of the traditional Roman Rite permitted by his predecessors, and who lifted the preposterous “excommunication” of the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X, has suddenly resigned. We are left in a mixed state of bewilderment, gratitude, fear for the future, and hope for what the Holy Ghost may yet bring about despite the best laid plans of the wolves who now look down upon our fallen Pope, pondering their next move.  Our Lady of Fatima, confound them!

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