The reign of Pope Benedict VI comes to a close at the end of this month. It is not sufficient to say that this morning’s news of the pope’s resignation came as shock. For an instant, the world seemed to have spun off its axis. Perhaps the most stunning thing about it is the humility implicit in Benedict’s renunciation of his Petrine ministry. He resigns in recognition of his decreasing ability to fulfill the demands of office. So doing, he upholds the truth of his own condition. He sees himself as he is, not as he might wish to be. An extraordinary and difficult thing to do, especially in the rarefied precincts of the Vatican.

Michelangelo St. Peter
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1546-50); Michelangelo

Everyone is familiar with the famous comment of Lord Acton (d. 1902): “All power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are accustomed to applying it to politics, to the dealings of statesmen, possessors of worldly power. It is easy, then, to forget that the words were initially aimed at the nineteenth century Church, at its all-too-human bureaucracy and ecclesiastical power brokers.

The Acton Institute, founded to further Acton’s life-long study of the right relation between faith and power, says this on the stealthy erosion of moral insight in persons insulated by high office:

If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also possess wisdom. He becomes converted to the seductive thesis that election to public office endows the official with both power and wisdom. At this point, he begins to lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient.

St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (1425); Masaccio

Humility is a rare virtue in holders of high office, whether public or sacral. Benedict’s resignation is a lesson in the moral splendor of a neglected virtue and in the wisdom that sustains it. Joseph Ratzinger will end life as he began it—not as Bishop of Rome but simply as a man. True holiness attends his choice.

God bless Joseph Ratzinger. We pray for him and with him.

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