Benedict XVI’s Abdication, Five Years Later


National Catholic Register, 11 February 2018

All the immense good that he accomplished will continue to bear fruit. But his decision to abdicate will occupy the first place evaluating his legacy.

It requires the distance of history to judge properly whether Pope Benedict XVI was right to abdicate in February 2013. Five years is not sufficient distance. A judgment about the wisdom of the abdication need not involve a judgment on the pontificate of Pope Francis, but in practice it is difficult to separate the two.

Nonetheless, on the fifth anniversary there is an opportunity to reflect more soberly than was the case immediately after the earthquake of Feb. 11, 2013, when Benedict concluded a routine ceremony for the canonization of saints with the announcement that he would abdicate at the end of that same month.

At the time, I wrote that the abdication was an act of humility by a wise and holy man. George Weigel characterized as “his last great act of service to the Church.” Those who greatly admired Benedict XVI were inclined to see the decision in the best light.

Even then though, there were doubts. I wrote that what is foreseen by canon law was incomprehensible to the Catholic imagination, and it was profoundly unsettling.

Unsettling because what Benedict did had never been done before. Ever. In all the historical complexities of the Petrine office, no pope securely reigning, whose legitimacy was not in question, had ever abdicated.

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