Yes the news certainly came like a bolt out of the blue: Benedict quits. God’s reaction was made apparent when a short time later, St. Peter’s was hit with not one but two lightning bolts (indicating the surprises aren’t over?).
(For those keeping score at home, this isn’t the first bad omen for the papacy lately. On January 26, the pope let loose a dove of peace from his window – that was immediately and viciously attacked by a seagull.)
This just goes to show that historically, it usually hasn’t worked out all that happily either for popes who quit or for the Church. Most notable example: the first to do so, Pope Celestine V, a saintly monk elected in 1294 to break a deadlock in the College of Cardinals that had lasted several years. The job proved to be a pain so he quit at the urging of the guy who replaced him — Boniface VIII.
Boniface probably had Celestine killed to make sure he didn’t change his mind. Celestine did get sainted for his trouble, so I guess it worked out okay for him. But Boniface was just getting started. He issued the most extreme papal claims ever put forward in a papal bull called “Unam Sanctam” to declare that he, the pope, was the boss of everybody everywhere forever and ever amen, so the French king sent his goons rough him up, and Boniface died out of sheer embarrassment.
The papacy was carried off to France in captivity, leading to schism and scandalous religious feuding with as many as three rival claimants at one time, all busily excommunicating each other. The final stubborn claimant of these was the last would-be pope to say “I quit” before Ratzinger.
Poor Baldassare Cossa was on the losing side and called himself “John XXIII.” The name sounds familiar because the winners added a final indignity when a legit pope took the same name and number when elected in 1958. It should be noted that the last actual Roman pope to quit, Gregory XII, did so at about the same time, to clear the way so a new guy could get a fresh start. He was allowed to retire peacefully like Benny. But the remaining antipope wouldn’t play nicely, so he was excommunicated and imprisoned.
And the ultimate winners were the Protestants. Because the corruption and incompetence exposed just how pathetically far the Roman Catholic Church had fallen.
So generally, papal resignation is not a good idea.
Why then did he do it? Speculation is already off the tracks: ranging from being fired by the Knights of Malta who were in town celebrating their 900th birthday, to his being indicted by a kangaroo court, to a new documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, that says what I’ve been saying all along: that Joseph Ratzinger is largely responsible for the clergy abuse crisis. The full story is detailed in my book Sons of Perdition.
And if, as has been suggested, Ratzi’s stacked the College and will seek to run it from the background, good luck. Once a man puts on the white suit, all bets are off. The Pope is not obliged to honor any deal or promise agreed to beforehand. As history has repeatedly proven…
Most likely, however, Benedict did it to prevent another long, sad, drawn-spectacle like the decline of his predecessor, John Paul II.
However, apparently he told his brother that he could come back if things don’t work out. And thus the grim specter of schism has already been raised, with the most dire results imaginable.
Which is why the pope traditionally never retires. In fact, just to make sure he died on the job, in the old days, they took definite steps to make sure he had. If the pope looked dead, they’d hit him three times on the head with a hammer while calling his name out loud to make sure he was really, most sincerely dead and not faking. Then they’d publicly break his signet ring, so nobody could fake documents. Only then would they get on with electing a new guy. Cardinals have never been a trusting bunch, nor a very trustworthy one, either, and for good reasons.
This time, of course, there’s even more riding on it. According to those who’ve been counting the popes in the prophecies of St. Malachy, the next one is IT. THE. LAST. POPE. EVER.
Oh, and during his reign, there will be many tribulations, Rome is destroyed by fire, the Antichrist does his thing, and then Jesus comes back to kick ass and take names.
So stay tuned! Big End Times fun’s about to begin! Hallelujah!