Earlier this year I offered my opinion that P. Benedict XVI’s resignation was valid in spite of his blatherings-on about “active” and “contemplative” aspects of the “Petrine ministry.” But there is also the occasional argument, mostly from the outer reaches of Tradistan, that his resignation was invalid because of some external pressure that would have removed the exercise of his free agency. P. Francis, then, would be interpreted as an anti-pope reigning while the true pope still lived.
Any doubts about the freedom of Benedict’s will should be washed away by the recent publication of Last Testament: In His Own Words, a book-length interview conducted by his long time interviewer Peter Seewald. The interview begins with questions about the Pope Emeritus’s current retirement and recent resignation, and his subject is crystal clear on the internal peace surrounding his decision.
For instance, in the chapter “Quiet Days at Mater Ecclesiae,” the once-Cardinal Ratzinger declares he does not miss the papacy:
Not at all, no! On the contrary, I am grateful to God for lifting this responsibility which I could no longer bear from my shoulders. I am grateful that I am now free humbly to walk with Him, to live among, and be visited by, friends.
He admits that the fear of a lingering death—something experienced in concrete reality with his predecessor—was a minor factor in his decision:
For one thing there is the fear that one is imposing on people through a long period of disability. I would find that very distressing. My father always had a fear of death too; it has endured with me, but lessened.
The next chapter “The Resignation” takes on the subject squarely. He asserts that his decision was made after a long period of internal consideration and with minimal advice from anyone else.
An awareness of its [the decision to resign] responsibility and seriousness called for the most thorough examination, time and again having to examine yourself before God and before yourself; that took place, yes, but not in the sense that it tore me to pieces.
He notes that he wrote his resignation announcement in Latin because his Italian is not perfect, and he wanted to ensure that it would contain no ambiguity or mistakes.
Mr. Seewald asks him point-blank:
Are you at peace with God?
Indeed, I really am.
And he goes on to ask if that peace extended to the turmoil of the Vatileaks and financial scandals rocking the Vatican before the resignation, and the Pope Emeritus’s response is telling:
I said… that one is not permitted to step back when things are going wrong, but only when things are at peace. I could resign because calm had returned to this situation. It was not a case of retreating under pressure or feeling that things couldn’t be coped with. [emphasis added]
He responds to a more blunt question about blackmail:
That’s all complete nonsense…. But no one has tried to blackmail me. If that had been attempted I would not have gone, since you are not permitted to leave because you’re under pressure…. On the contrary, the moment had—thanks to be God [sic]—a sense of having overcome the difficulties and a mood of peace.
When asked about regret, he denies having any: “No! No, no. Every day I see that it was right.”
And again he denies any illegitimate pressure on him to resign:
I therefore emphasized in my speech that I was acting freely. One is not allowed to go away if one is running away. One cannot submit to coercion. One can only turn away when no one has demanded it. And no one demanded it of me during my time as Pope. No one. It came as a complete surprise to everybody.
That is all more than enough to prove my point. If Benedict is indeed being held under some kind of house arrest by Francis and forced to say all these things, one would expect his answers to be terse or stock, or even to refuse to acknowledge them. His later words about Francis in the book are respectful, but one gets the impression that he is rolling his eyes a bit as he gives them; hardly the tone one would expect from a prisoner. One under compulsion could not show the range of emotion he does in this interview, unless we are going to consider Mr. Seewald to be a talented novelist in addition to a journalist.
The current Roman Pontiff may be unwilling to let his yes be yes and his no be no, but the P. Emeritus has no such difficulty. His tone in the book is one of a man at rest, who is enjoying his final days in peace, who can laugh and tear up when remembering his finals days as pope, and who tires of being pulled into what he now considers other people’s business.
Back when Ratzinger was first announced as the newly elected pope, an academic mentor of mine opined that he will need many prayers, because this man is also an academic and not well suited for the kind of public life that John Paul has made of the papacy. I think he was right, and that the resignation was merely a result of a man better suited for reading, writing, and contemplation having finally exhausted himself. John Paul made the papacy an extravert’s playground, leaving any future introvert popes in the lurch.
When asked about the feeling of God’s nearness, Benedict’s answer goes in an interesting direction:
Of course new insights are opened up again and again. I find this touching and comforting. But one also notices that the depths of the Word are never fully plumbed. And some words of wrath, of rejection, of the threat of judgement, certainly become more mysterious and grave and awesome than before.
Let us pray for our retired pope in his final days, especially that he would be prepared to meet the Judge, and that he will find mercy when his time comes, and rest in peace.