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Interview: Pope's Resignation Not Such a Great Surprise

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI attends Ash Wednesday mass at the Vatican February 13, 2013. Thousands of people gathered in the Vatican for Pope Benedict's Ash Wednesday mass, which is expected to be his last before leaving office at the end of February. |

Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher, Chair of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), speaks about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, its implications for the Vatican and why it did not surprise him as much in light of the Pope's earlier statements.

You recently met with the Pope. Is he really so weak?
At the three week long synod in Rome in October last year, everyone was able to see that Pope Benedict XVI is physically limited to the point that some days he must forgo or limit his speaking, even though he feels fit intellectually. I saw him recently at two masses and I was reminded of the final time of Pope John Paul II. As he spoke he was fully alert, but he was not physically able to stand on his own.

Were you astonished to see him announce his resignation?
Of course, no one knew the precise date, but Pope Benedict had made it unmistakably clear in an interview in 2010 that when a pope is physically or mentally no longer in a position to lead the Church, he has the right, "indeed under certain circumstances the duty," to step down. That Benedict would not take the same path as his predecessor was something that many knew, although it was not quite clear how he would do it.

Isn't it much more important that the Pope feels mentally fit?
Of course. However, the three week synod was demanding enough for a 52 year old guest such as me, not to mention what is was like for the leadership of the synod. The Pope, however, continued to lead the normal affairs, participated in many more meetings than would otherwise have been the case, and had a number of evening appearances outside the Vatican. A number of people asked how he was actually able to handle it.

A papal mass is in itself physically demanding, partly because there are always television cameras pointed at you. A pope who is becoming weaker and weaker can either leave certain affairs to others, as has actually always been the case, or he can let those things rest, as was the case in Pope John Paul II's final phase. The step taken by Benedict is truly provided for in ecclesiastical law, but it has never been utilized – a resignation due to the infirmity of old age.

You published a German book in 2002 entitled The Pope and Suffering: Why the Pope does not resign, which in 2005 was released with the title Pope John Paul II and Suffering: Why the Pope does not resign. What distinguishes Pope Benedict from his predecessor?
Pope Benedict has clearly understood his office to be less sacramental than his predecessor, who saw his suffering as a continuation of the suffering of Christ. In recent months it has been noticeable that Benedict has above all increasingly lost control over the governmental sector of the Vatican. The spiritual aspect of his office, as head of the church and as a theologian, has always been more of a priority than the political aspect as head of state of the Holy See.

It is not by chance that the political significance and the political activity of the Vatican have been reduced at several points. Even in Germany in his farewell address in Freiburg he called for the Roman Catholic Church to loosen itself from being caught up with the world. It is completely in keeping with how Benedict became Pope and what his understanding of the papal office is, that he would give up the office if he can no longer guarantee its leadership.

Less sacramental?
Yes. He once said to the cardinals that a pope is fallible most of the time. In most of his masses and addresses there are hints that he makes mistakes, that he seeks forgiveness from God and the Church, and that he can only hope that God will protect him from wrong decisions. That even applies to his short resignation announcement. This was not the case with John Paul II. That includes the continual indications made by Benedict that he is not head of the church but rather that Jesus is.

The Pope has made many an unusual decision substantiating this. Thus his three volume book on Jesus was written expressly as a private individual who makes mistakes, which anyone may freely communicate to him by email. No predecessor of his had ever done such a thing; in the past published papal writings were always official writings only.

Within his annual meeting with former students, he was nothing more than the professor conducting discussions, and he was one who also willingly invited Protestant professors to join in the discussion. He abruptly did away with the status symbols of his predecessors, above all those of a political nature, such as head coverings symbolizing political power. Stated another way, in contrast to his predecessors, Pope Benedict never gave up being the private individual Joseph Ratzinger, and thus it is only consistent that he may retire from participation in public affairs, becoming a private man again.

What is your opinion as a Protestant?
To lead 1.2 billion people, to monarchically run a small state, to control enormous wealth, and as one of a few people to continually be present in the media is hardly even achievable for people who are physically fit. The Pope is also only mortal and reality is catching up with the superelevation of his office in papal dogma dating from 1870. The Pope himself has recommended to Orthodox churches that it is enough to acknowledge the office of the pope in its configuration prior to the split of the church in 1054. His resignation, even if it is covered by ecclesiastical law, demystifies the office and makes it more human. Presumably it will not be the last resignation due to reasons of age but should rather become the rule.

You are one of the Protestant experts on the Roman Catholic Church and have spoken with many of its high officials on all continents. What motivates an Evangelical theologian and a representative of the World Evangelical Alliance in this respect?
I have of course always taught confessional studies. Whoever wants to understand and teach about Christianity as it is found around the world cannot just bypass the Catholic half of it. Additionally, the Vatican, the World Council of Churches including the Orthodox member churches, and the World Evangelical Alliance are the only three large-scale Christian umbrella organizations, with the Vatican representing about 50% of global Christianity and the latter two 25% each of global Christianity. You cannot simply pass by each other. This applies to the activity with the UN in New York and Geneva and the OSCE in Vienna as well as on the topic of the persecution of Christians. And I like to know my counterparts 'in the original,' which means face to face.

What has the relationship of the World Evangelical Alliance been to the Vatican and vice versa?
Our Secretary General Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe has met the Pope several times. We made our contribution at the synod. We have always appreciated good relationships with several senior colleagues of the Pope, such as the heads of papal congregations including Cardinals Kurt Koch, Peter Turkson, and Jean-Louis Tauran. And as the World Evangelical Alliance, we have always been treated respectfully.

This particularly applies to the five years of negotiations on the joint document by the Vatican, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the World Council of Churches entitled "Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World," which I led from our side. But this also applies to our on-going official discussions on theological similarities and differences, which on our side is being led by my predecessor as Chairman of the Theological Commission, Dr. Rolf Hille.

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