Tomorrow, Pope Benedict XVI, will retire from the office of the papacy, the seat of Saint Peter. His retirement is one of many shocking events to happen to the modern Catholic Church. It has always been tradition for the Pope to remain Pope until his death…ideally. The Roman Papacy has had its fair share of…exceptions, to this tradition. Some have been exiled like Pius VII in 1809; others like Stephen VII in 897 and John VII in 882, were killed, and there was even a point 1309 to 1376 where there were actually two popes.
Despite these events however, Catholicism still seems to enshrine the ideal of the papacy in tradition, along with many other parts of the religion. To average non- Catholics, and perhaps to some Catholics, much of these traditions do not seem to make much sense. We do not seem to understand just what exactly the big deal is about a Pope retiring. The traditions seem to us more like curtains to cover up their recent disgraces rather than anything holy.
This is largely a misunderstanding, though politics and human flaws cannot be completely ignored. It is a misunderstanding of different worlds and different times. We live in an era where words are often used to cover the truth, especially when they are employed by politicians and clergy. Tradition is hand in hand with scandal and nowhere more so than with scandals of the Catholic Church. If it were up to us, these men would be doing jail time.
The understanding with many of the old guard of the Catholic Church though , is that it is not about cover up or dodging the law. The resignation of a Pope is a tremendous deal and this is why.
The early Christian church, where Catholicism is descended from, believed that their traditions were divinely-inspired. They, and the decisions of descendants of the early church and the Apostles, carried the authority of God; something that transcended world politics or changing times. Indeed it made them unchanging.
So when a change in times happened, whether it was in science, politics, or equal rights of the sexes, the old guard considered them null and void in comparison to the eternal authority of God. As long as tradition was identified with God, all other authorities, even in legal matters, would be either second place, or perhaps considered with great hesitancy.
This is why Pope Benedict XVI‘s resignation is making waves. It is the latest in the conflict between obligation to God, and obligation to the surrounding world.