Responding to this morning’s announcement from Pope Benedict that he will step down later this month has not been easy. The flood of information, analysis, and interpretation is unceasing. It’s hard to make sense of an announcement that took nearly everyone by surprise, but here are three thoughts that came to mind:

The Pope’s decision to resign is a bold reform of an institution sorely needing it.

Catholics, especially the ordained, can sometimes overly venerate the institutional church, mistakenly crafting an idol that will ultimately disappoint and fail, as all human institutions are prone to do. When popes and bishops are elevated to near-demigod status, the results are nothing short of horrific, creating a climate where shielding pedophile priests to save the church’s reputation is more important than protecting children from harm.

Benedict’s decision to step down is courageous. He is, god willing, setting precedent not only for future popes governing in a modern age, but also for bishops who are unable to lead their dioceses for any reason. I think immediately of Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City, whose mishandling of clergy sex abuse led to a criminal indictment. If the pope can step down, without feeling, apparently, that the institutional church will suffer, then bishops no longer have an excuse that they must stay on because of some sort of divine calling. Benedict’s decision, perhaps paradoxically, is a bold reform from a man who seemed intent on rolling back the changes stemming from Vatican II.

He was not the reactionary some feared,

When Benedict was elected Pope in 2005, many, myself included, worried what a conservative reactionary without the charisma of his predecessor would mean for a church mired in scandal and facing decline in the Western world. While he certainly didn’t morph into a liberal, Benedict hardly lived up to those fears. He instituted norms to deal with clergy sexual abuse; he continually advocated for better stewardship of natural resources; he constantly touted God’s love over God’s vengeance; he critiqued unfettered capitalism; and he reminded those in power of their obligation to serve the poor and marginalized. Yes, he brought back Latin Masses and he negotiated with a bizarre fringe group that denies the Holocaust and rejects Vatican II, but, by and large, Benedict was not the neo-con so many lamented following his election.

But his views on LGBT people were wrong and hurtful.

Benedict seemed unable to grasp that gay women and men long for the same things as their heterosexual peers: loving relationships, lives of dignity, and respect from their fellow human beings. He seemed particularly fixated on the bizarre notion that same-sex marriage would somehow herald the downfall of civilization and he said things that no pastor should ever preach, much less the pope. History will look back on Benedict’s dismissal of gay and lesbian people as a sad part of his legacy. In a way it’s understandable how a man in his 80s who lived so much of his adult life in the confines of the Vatican would think this way, but it’s no excuse. Benedict’s failure to act pastorally and kindly on these issues remains a great failing of his papacy.

Pope Benedict’s legacy will be examined more closely by smarter minds than my own in the coming days and weeks. But even a cursory glance suggests that his pontificate was complicated. He seemed an erudite professor, uncomfortable as an administrator of a global institution. He acted somewhat boldly on sexual abuse, but it took decades of neglect and mismanagement for him to embrace the magnitude of the problem.

His resignation, an act that has the potential to change forever how we view the papacy, might be his most ambitious and lasting legacy.

Categories: Beliefs, Culture, Institutions, Politics

Beliefs: ,

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin writes about religion and politics from Washington, D.C., paying close attention to the role of the Catholic Church in public life. His writing has appeared in Religion & Politics, the Jesuit magazine America, on, and in Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership.

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