Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation from the office of pope took everyone in Rome by surprise.  Perhaps we should not be surprised.  Didn’t Pope Benedict state at the time of his installation that his papacy would be short?  Perhaps Benedict’s actions such as his August 2009 personal visit to the tomb of Pope Celestine V, who also voluntarily stepped down from the papal office, telegraphed his ultimate intentions for how his own papacy would end?

My colleagues in theology and ethics here and elsewhere will speak most capably to the details of Canon Law and the precedents Benedict’s act may bring to the Church.  Here I’d like to focus on some ethical lessons I think we in the Church, as the people of God, ought to draw from Pope Benedict’s retirement from the papacy.

First, as Brian Flanagan points out, there is always a distinction between the person and the ecclesial office held.  Pope Benedict reminds us all that while the Church is the Body of Christ, and each of us must have a valued place in that body, nobody is indispensable in relation to any particular office, clerical or otherwise, in service to the people of God.  On the one hand, the Church must become far more intentional in valuing and taking care of its people, especially those educated for ministry, teaching and research in the Church.  (That will be the subject of another post.)  On the other hand, Benedict is showing that the Church ultimately depends on God for its survival and ability to do God’s work, and not on any one of us in the exercise of a ministry or educational career.  As valued as our presence in the Church may be, and as important as our work may be, God’s Church and its mission will go on without us.  There comes a time where we must hand on our work to others in the Church.

Second, Benedict’s action is an act of charity for the Church.  It appears he saw first hand how John Paul II’s declining physical health overcame his still-intact intellectual powers and that had a negative effect on the Church’s ability to govern itself well at the center.  Benedict reminds us here that goodness is not limited to moral goodness, but includes the possession of sufficient physical and mental faculties to perform the duties of an office or ministry in the Church well.  Here, the Church (including Catholic educational institutions) need to be careful.  On the one hand, we do not dare marginalize people simply for being old.  The Church can be a powerful witness against the prejudice of ageism in the West that idolizes youth for its own sake.  On the other hand, the Church must insist on competence to fulfill the tasks of ministry.  When any individual ceases to have the physical and/or mental ability to perform a Church ministry, again we dare not marginalize that person, but place that person in another place in the Church where he or she may continue to serve.

Third, Benedict’s action is an act of charity for himself.  It is an act of legitimate self-care.  Popes, and any one who ministers as a cleric or lay minister should serve the Church, even to the point of martyrdom if necessary.  However, breaking one’s health or working to the point of burn-out is neither an act of ministry nor martyrdom; it is an imprudent and intemperate exercise of one’s vocation.  A true martyr would rather live for God and God’s church than die.  Martyrdom is something imposed from without, either by a personal opponent or social and historical situations hostile to  God and God’s Church’s mission and work, forcing the Christian to give his or her all to see that mission through, even at the cost of his or her physical well being.  Most Christians, thankfully, will not experience this.  We will work hard in our ministry, be it pastoral or educational, be reminded by friends and colleagues to rest and recoup our energies to consistently perform our tasks well, and one day this generation of good and faithful servants will gradually hand on the work to the next generation.  The consolation of having done God’s work well, a work recognized and valued by the People of God, will be our reward…as will be Pope Benedict’s.