In an increasingly secular world, the workings of the Roman Catholic Church still fascinate people.
So it was Monday morning when people heard or saw that Pope Benedict XVI, 85, was going to step down, the first pontiff to retire in 600 years.
When Benedict was elected in 2005 at age 78, he was the oldest pope in nearly 300 years. Before this, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he served as the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith -- the church's enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy -- for 23 years. In this role he faithfully worked with his friend, Pope John Paul II, before succeeding him after the beloved pope's death.
And no doubt watching the increasing debilitation his friend suffered in his last years from the ravages of Parkinson's disease influenced Benedict's decision to step down.
"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," Benedict read in Latin at a Vatican meeting to a group of Cardinals. "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 barque 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."
One must respect Benedict's recognition that he could no longer continue to serve adequately. Can one imagine an 85-year-old president of the United States, for instance? And it has been a long road for the former Joseph Ratzinger, the son of a Bavarian police officer. Enlisted into the Nazi youth movement as a boy against his will, he later was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit, which he deserted near the end of the war. Ordained a priest in 1951, he became a college professor, recognized as a top intellectual and author of many books.
Father Ratzinger was present as a theologian at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), at that time something of a liberal supporting the reforms of the council. The raucous student protests in Europe of 1968 changed him, however, and from then on he has been firmly in the conservative camp.
And so Catholic conservatives applaud him for holding the line on church teaching on such issues as homosexuality and women priests, cracking down on dissident theologians, and preaching about the dangers of relativism. To the consternation of progressive American Catholics, Benedict's Vatican has moved the language of the Mass from the plain English encouraged by Vatican II back toward the elaborate and sometimes tortured Latinate usage of the distant past. Moreover, the Vatican has in recent years launched an investigation of the major group of American nuns, questioning their orthodoxy and threatening changes, while at the same time failing to punish bishops for not adequately protecting children from abusers, such as former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law or current Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, who in 2012 was convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse.
On the other hand, neither Benedict nor Catholic doctrine can be pigeonholed by simple American definitions of liberal or conservative. For Benedict opposed the Iraq War both before and after becoming pope; he recognizes and has spoken out against the dangers of global warming; his one social encyclical, "Charity in Truth," was so outspoken for social justice, international cooperation, and the need for governmental authority to rein the excesses of capitalism, that some conservative U.S.commentators did backflips trying to convince themselves and others that Benedict didn't really mean what was written under his name.
Moreover, the first pope to use Twitter has broken with long-standing tradition to make a wise decision for the future of the church. The extended twilight of a pope with decreasing energy and failing health would no doubt lead to drift and stagnation at a time when this global religious body can least afford it.
Agree or disagree with Benedict, few would dispute his total commitment to the faith. When he succeeded Pope John Paul II, Benedict described himself as "a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord." That he has been, and he has manifested humility and devotion -- and uncommon self-awareness for a man in a position of power -- in deciding to step down in the best interests of the church he has served so long.
~ Mark E. Rondeau