Revisiting Benedict XVI’s Resignation: A Lesson on Conscience

In a recent commentary appearing in the National Catholic Register, Fr. Raymond de Souza argues once again that, although Benedict XVI’s resignation was valid, its “rightness” remains questionable. He examines several pieces of evidence that have emerged since Benedict’s death regarding the reasons for his resignation, points out seeming contradictions, and, consequently, places the purity of the former Pontiff’s motives into serious doubt.

There is no doubt that Benedict XVI’s resignation caused confusion. I was within the walls of the Apostolic Palace the day the announcement was made and was no less surprised than those who heard it on the news. My colleagues and I in the Latin department were charged with cleaning up the Latin text after the announcement, though we had not seen it beforehand. Benedict kept the decision to himself and a few confidants, and rightly so. Rumors need but the slightest spark in the Vatican, and there was no reason to start a blaze.

I understand Fr. de Souza’s concerns, but I am troubled by the suggestion that the pope’s abdication seemed “indulgent” and that Benedict’s commitment to finishing the encyclical Lumen Fidei indicates that he “was functioning sufficiently well” to continue serving in the Petrine ministry. My main concern is that these and other speculations obfuscate the main issue, which is the strength of Benedict XVI’s conscience. Ratzinger had spent years not only studying Saints Augustine of Hippo, John Henry Newman, Ignatius of Loyola, and others on the topic of conscience, but prayerfully developing his own. Saint Ignatius teaches us that once, after prayerful discernment, we have made a momentous life decision, we should feel rightness, peace, and joy, and these are precisely what Archbishop Georg Gänswein detected in Benedict (cf. Nient’altro che la Verità, pp. 195-205).Gänswein had known Ratzinger long enough to know that “whenever he had made a decision – especially, in this case (i.e., the decision to resign), after intense prayer and reflection – he was determined to carry it through” (p. 196), as any man of God should be, according to Saint Ignatius.

We only have to peruse two critical essays written by Cardinal Ratzinger to understand the depth and refinement of his understanding of “conscience.” His fascination with the topic began when Alfred Läpple, Ratzinger’s seminary Prefect, introduced him to Newman’s theology of conscience in early 1946. Their friendship lasted a lifetime (Läpple died in 2013). The central insight that Ratzinger developed ever since that initial encounter was that there is an ontological level of conscience that had largely been forgotten in neo-scholastic theological manuals. Those manuals instead focused on the role of practical reason in moral decision making, and more specifically the role of prudence (phronesis). Josef Pieper argued that to this dimension we must add a deeper, ontological dimension, which he called Ur-Gewissen: a deep-seated, primal sense of the good that arises out of our being created in the image and likeness of God.

Many Catholics are uncomfortable with the emphasis placed on this aspect of conscience at the Second Vatican Council, and that’s because, Ratzinger argued, it’s widely misunderstood. We only need call to mind perhaps the most controversial passage from the council: “On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious” (Dignitatis Humanae, 3).

Many read this passage thinking it mitigates – if not outright denies – the possibility that one can act wrongly by following his conscience. But if we read the first three paragraphs of Dignitiatis Humanae carefully, we see that the discussion is at an entirely different level than the evaluation of individual, discreet moral acts. It is much closer to the ontological Ur-Gewissen that interested Newman, Läpple, and Ratzinger.

The point is that one’s conscience must be well formed, and no one knew that better than Ratzinger, both on an intellectual and on a spiritual level. On the bedrock of conscience as Ur-Gewissen, Ratzinger was able to assert boldly that “Christ governs through conscience, by way of (his followers’) consciences. Christ is able to exercise governance over the Church much more effectively the more open and pure are the consciences of those to whom is entrusted the care of their flocks” (Church, Ecumenism, and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology, p. 60). These are the words of a man entirely devoted to opening and purifying his own conscience precisely as a follower of Christ, a pastor of His flock, a coworker in the truth, and a Successor of Peter.

Thus, the question of the “rightness” of Benedict’s decision to resign may be of historical interest, but dogmatically, pastorally, and spiritually, it has little, if any, relevance. He will be held no less accountable for the “rightness” or “wrongness” of his decision than Celestine V was for his, and, despite Dante’s placement of the latter at the limen of hell, we have about as much insight into the depth of his conscience as we do Benedict’s.

The fact that Pope Francis has a different idea than Benedict about whether, and in what circumstances, a pope should resign – and the fact that Francis himself, as Fr. de Souza suggests, may have changed his mind on the matter – matters little. There is hardly a trace of evidence that Francis, as Fr. de Souza writes, believes “that the decision (of Pope Benedict to resign) was wrong in substance.” Such an induction is unfair. The evidence is that Francis has just as much respect for Pope Benedict’s decision now as he did when Benedict was still living, precisely because Francis knew him as a man deeply in touch with the Lord, and as a man who had rigorously developed his conscience. There is plenty of room for Francis and Benedict to disagree not only about whether Benedict should have resigned, or whether Francis should ever resign, but whether any pope should resign, and if so, under what circumstances.

Ten years later, the “debate continues,” writes Fr. de Souza, but I have a hard time understanding why. Benedict resigned “freely,” he “properly manifested” it, and I think there is wisdom in the Code’s further specification that the resignation “need not be accepted by anyone” (Code of Canon Law, can. 332, § 2). Knowing the type of man Benedict XVI was, I believe that, rather than questioning it, we have a lot to learn about conscience in his decision to resign.

Image by Marco Iacobucci Epp on Shutterstock

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Daniel B. Gallagher, a Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy at Ralston College, holds degrees in philosophy and theology from the Catholic University of America and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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