VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s impending resignation is dividing many Catholics between those who see it as a gesture of hope and renewal for the Church and those for whom it is an admission of weakness.
“It is a break that encourages the Church to examine its conscience to start afresh,” said Paolo Colonnetti from the Focolare lay movement.
“It is not at all a gesture that desacralizes or has any dangers for the Church,” he said.
Father Sergio, superior general of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious congregation, said he too was optimistic.
“I am awaiting with a confident spirit the goodness the Church will receive from this move,” he said.
With rising levels of secularisation especially in Europe “some people in the Church think that going back to tradition is the solution,” he said.
But the Church instead needs “modernity”, he said.
After Benedict said he would resign on February 28 due to old age, many clergymen hailed the “wisdom” and “humility” of his decision, which could open the way for future pontiffs to step down and rejuvenate the old-man hierarchy of the Church.
“It expresses the professional conscience of the pope to his ministry. He is leaving his ministry,” one cardinal told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The function of the pope was too sacred,” he said.
The cardinal said it could even be “a moment of grace and reflection on the world and on God” and said this in turn could promote more understanding with Protestant and Orthodox believers.
Catholic theologian Hans Kung, an old friend of Benedict’s from university days who is close to the Protestant Church and has been very critical of the pope in the past, was also pleased.
Kung spoke to German television channel Phoenix about his “great respect” for the decision and said it would “change the way we see the papacy”.
But many more traditional Catholics say the act of resignation could spell trouble for the Church.
The cardinal said that many bishops and cardinals “did not understand, some of them were a bit shocked, they had the impression of abandonment.
Vatican officials said there was widespread sadness and dismay following the pope’s announcement.
“It’s a catastrophe, it’s horrible,” one cardinal who heard the pope’s speech was quoted as saying.
Sense of resignation
A French bishop said he had perceived the same sense of resignation in the faces of pilgrims coming to Rome to bid a final farewell to the pope.
“Have we not passed from a sacred papacy to a functional papacy?” the worried bishop said.
For many believers, the papal election is divinely inspired and the pontiff cannot just resign.
Polish cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, late pope John Paul II’s former secretary, was categorical in his judgment immediately after the announcement.
“You don’t come down from the cross,” he said, before going back on his comments.
John Paul II remained in office despite an agonizing illness on the world stage.
Many traditionalists say the act could be seen as a sign of weakness in the face of scandals and could lead to more papal resignations that would lead to a “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church.
Two professors interviewed by French Catholic daily La Croix, Pierre Dulau and Martin Steffens, said the pope’s act contained “symbolic violence”.
For Catholics “the pope is the arc that links heaven and Earth”, they said.
“Everywhere our words are shot down, mocked, relegated to obscurity. The last thing we needed was for the pope to resign,” they said.
The resignation will set up an unprecedented situation in which a pope and his predecessor will be living within a stone’s throw of each other since Benedict will retire to a former monastery on a hilltop inside the Vatican City state.
“It’s not to everyone’s liking,” a prelate told AFP.
“When he walks in the gardens, could one go up to him or will he have security like before? It is risky and costly for the Vatican,” he said.
But Vatican experts said Benedict could be trusted to keep a low profile, as shown by the fact that he is initially moving to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo while his successor takes office.
“He is keen to stay away,” said Marco Politi, Vatican expert for Il Fatto Quotidiano daily and the author of a biography of Benedict.
“The monastic life, even the hermitic life, suits him,” he said.
Even so, some Church figures have suggested his sojourn within the Vatican might be short-lived.
Perhaps more controversial is the role of his secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein.
The fellow German will stay on as head of the papal household for Benedict’s successor, while remaining Benedict’s secretary and living with him.
“There is a conflict of functions,” Politi said.