German journalist Peter Seewald does the reader both a favor and a disservice with his generous introduction to the new volume, Last Testament: In His Own Words, by Pope Benedict XVI, which publishes worldwide on November 15. He reminds us of Pope Benedict's gifts to the Church, the academy, and the written word, but then he speeds past all of the problems. After ten pages of mostly nodding in agreement, or at least thinking that it was good to be reminded of what had been good in Benedict's papacy, on the eleventh page of the foreword my pencil dug into the margin on the page. There, Seewald writes, "The historic act of [Benedict XVI's] resignation has fundamentally changed the office of Peter at the last. He gave it back the spiritual dimension to which it was assigned at the beginning."
Wait a minute. It is important not to miss the real story of why this book is important: for two reasons, it never should have been written. First, no modern pope had ever, or perhaps ever should have, resigned from office in the way that an embattled CEO might resign from a corporation, weary of dealing with stockholders and a difficult board of directors. Second, if a modern pope were to resign, one might hope that he would also cease giving interviews and writing books, as if the faithful want or need more than one pope doing those things at a given time. We had enough of that during the Middle Ages.
In fact, the only pope to willingly and freely resign from the chair of St. Peter before Benedict XVI did in 2013, was Celestine V, in 1294. Celestine V was simply unprepared for the job. A hermit in his eighties, he was elected by the College of Cardinals when they couldn't agree on anyone else. He was a place-holder, to some, and a puppet, to others. No one expected him to do much, or to live very long. He spent most of his time in private prayer instead of engaging with his responsibilities. Eventually, he couldn't take it anymore, and quit. Celestine thought that he would be able to go back to his mountain and his former life. His successor wouldn't allow that, and Celestine was thrown in prison, never to be heard from again.
Pope Benedict XVI, as Seewald points out, engaged a great deal as pope. He wrote magnificent books and encyclicals, moved ecumenical relationships forward, and focused the Church on faith over numbers. However, there were early signs that he might resign. Experts speculated about it after the infamous 2006 Regensburg University speech when Benedict referred to Islam as "evil and inhuman," and then again in 2010 as he failed to manage a growing clergy sexual abuse scandal. Some people said that a lack of managerial and diplomatic skills -- ineptitude similar to that shown by Celestine V 700 years earlier -- might be a sign that Benedict no longer had the mettle for the job. The rest of the story is recent history. We know it already. Benedict XVI quit in February 2013.
In Last Testament, he tells Seewald why: "[M]y hour had passed and I had given all I could give." It is odd to hear him say that, given the courageous way that his mentor and predecessor, Pope John Paul II, carried on his papacy despite the debilitations of Parkinson's disease, osteoarthritis, and two assassination attempts. John Paul II was praised for his courage and faithfulness.
Last Testament is a collection of interviews with Benedict XVI, conducted immediately before, and soon after, he resigned. There are beautiful moments in the book. The Emeritus Pope is winsome and his humility and gentle spirit are a real inspiration. "I am an entirely average Christian," he even says to Seewald at one point.
Still, having an Emeritus Pope is unprecedented, and troublesome, so much so that Pope Francis was forced to explain to reporters aboard the papal plane on June 26, 2016: "I never forget that speech [Benedict XVI] made to us cardinals, 'among you I'm sure that there is my successor. I promise obedience.' And he's done it. But, then I've heard, but I don't know if it's true...that some have gone to him to complain because of this new Pope, and he chased them away." That was bound to happen, which is the primary reason why popes are not supposed to just walk away.
Jon M. Sweeney is the author of many books including The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation, which has been optioned by HBO.