The Right Opinion

A Faith Unshaken but Unsettled

Catholics react to Pope Benedict's resignation.

By Peggy Noonan · Feb. 16, 2013

It is disquieting, the resignation of the pope. “We are in uncharted territory,” said a historian of the church. An old pope is leaving but staying within the walls of the Vatican, and a new one, younger and less known, will come before Easter.

In a week's conversation with faithful and believing Catholics, I detected something I've never quite heard before, and that is a deep, unshaken, even cheerful faith accompanied by a certain anxiety, even foreboding. I heard acceptance of Pope Benedict's decision coupled with an intense sympathy for what is broadly understood to be his suffering, from health problems to the necessity that his decision was a lonely one, its deepest reasoning known only to him. There was a lot of speculation that attempting to run the Vatican in the new age of technology, of leaks and indiscretions and instant responses, would have been hard on him.

So here are some things Catholics have been telling me.

From a Catholic journalist: “I trust Papa to know that he is doing the right thing, and the best thing, for the church. She is his whole life and nothing he has ever done has been but for her good. That said, you know that saying, 'It's going to get worse before it gets better'? That's pretty much where I am about it. I think there is going to be a great deal of intrigue” in the conclave. This journalists thinks that some see it as the “last, best chance to try to 'correct' the 'misguided' trajectories of John Paul II and Benedict the 16th, and I think that is the practical reason Benedict is doing this now – he is a mystic but a very practical, clear-eyed one. He knows that he has more sway over the conclave alive than dead.”

He would have been deliberate about the timing of his announcement, just before Lent, which “has helped to intently focus us on our prayer for the church at a time when she needs our focused prayer, fasting and sacrifice. It's a little chilling to consider that he may feel the church needs all three at this moment. The whole world is always watching a conclave but this time it may be watching more closely, with eyes that are both interested and on the lookout for wolves. But ultimately, I am willing to be optimistic. I tend to take the long view on these things, because I know God's hand is always at work in everything, and that all things work for our good – in His time, though, not in ours, which is the thing that gets us unnerved.”

From a parish priest in New York City: “The resignation was truly shocking, and hard to imagine. People are concerned about the successor. They're asking, What does it mean for the papacy? Will future popes be pressured to leave? Is it a sign of the technological thing that wears people out?”

From a historian of the Catholic Church: Some have been “unsettled” by the resignation because they think of the pope as a rock of stability, “but Benedict's point is that he couldn't be that anymore. Christ is the head of the Church, not him. If his physical and mental circumstances were not adequate then he should get out of the way. It said a lot about his character, just as it said a lot about John Paul's that he should stay.” John Paul gave his last great lesson “by dying a holy death in front of the world.” Benedict's lesson is humility and self-sacrifice.

In choosing a successor, “I think age is going to be an issue. I don't know there's any ceiling,” but the cardinals will think twice about older candidates. John Paul and Benedict had returned the Church to its biblical roots: “Saint Peter was prophet and martyr, but he wasn't a manager. … The optimal outcome of this process is a vibrant evangelical pastor who hires a good manager to run the Curia for him. We don't elect popes to move slots around on organizational charts.”

There is an old saying, God has already chosen the next pope, it's up to the cardinals to figure out who God's choice is. The historian observes: “That doesn't mean they'll figure it out.” He remembered Benedict saying long ago, when he was a cardinal, “The role of the Holy Spirit in the conclave is to prevent us from electing a pope who will completely destroy the church.”

His hope: “As the dying John Paul II put everyone on their best behavior in 2005, the self-effacing humility Benedict is displaying will put everyone on their best behavior again.” He's not necessarily optimistic that will happen.

In past conclaves there has always been an idea that America's superpower status constituted “a kind of veto” over the choosing of an American. America is so formidable, we're not going to give her the papacy too. “You don't hear that anymore,” the historian said, because “people don't see us as a superpower anymore.” An American pope is possible, though unlikely.

It's true, the historian said, that people are thinking about what nation or region the next pope might come from, but also true the Italians want very badly to win back the papacy after 35 years of a Pole and a German. Is it because they believe only an Italian can understand and manage the Vatican? “That's what they say,” he said. But the real reason is that Italy has lost a great deal – its economy is in the doldrums, its politics dysfunctional, its culture a mess. “Italy now has only two things, good food and the Vatican.”

From a Catholic writer: “I can't quite say I am at peace” about Benedict's decision. But she feels “a unity of divine purpose in what the Holy Father has set in motion” and sees a certain amount of “suffering” ahead. She also sees Benedict's decision as “at once a model, and an urgent plea, and a warning.”

Almost everyone I spoke to mentioned that they'd taken comfort from the words of Benedict, in a general audience in the Vatican on Ash Wednesday: “What sustains and illuminates me is the certainty that the Church belongs to Christ, whose care and guidance will never be lacking.”

A Washington-based Catholic activist spoke with some urgency of Cardinal Roger Mahony, who is scheduled to go to Rome to vote on Benedict's successor. As the Washington Post this week noted in an editorial, Cardinal Mahony is “lucky not to be in prison” for his role in covering up hundreds of well-chronicled cases of child sexual abuse in the 1980s, during his 25-year tenure as archbishop of Los Angeles. A few weeks ago he was forcefully rebuked and relieved of many of his public duties by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez.

Said the activist: “If Mahony goes to Rome it will be so wrong. And the media will make everything about him.”

They will, and understandably. It would be a shame, and another scandal for the church, if Cardinal Mahony goes, and votes. He should take a nod from the pope he praises, and remove himself.


Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

I pray that the new Pope will be an annoited Man, and Catholic.50% of all Christians are Catholic. I started out Friends Quaker, then Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, and now Lutheran.I was born again, at seven.God help Italy embrace free market solutions, for its mess of evil Socialism.John Paul II---"We loved you!"

Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 5:35 AM

Cal in SoCal said:

It is interesting how folks look at a Pope's retirement. Brave, say some, that he knows his limits. Weak, say others, who feel he should "hang in there." Since there have been more than 260 Popes since Peter, it might be prudent to say: It's their choice - and leave it. Now, the really big issue will be - will the next Pope be Conservatve or Liberal? Female Priests?
Same sex "marriages?" Probably none of the above. Hopefully, God will
inspire the next one to: Follow the Bible, tradition and Christ's teachings through the Magistarium. Oremus.

Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 5:28 PM

wjm in Colorado said:

Leave it to Noonan to come up with another non-story. It may have beed 600 or so years since the last resignation, but it is not unprecedented. I have more respect for someone that knows the limits of their posibilities, and has teh courage to resign a posting to able someone more capable to take over. What we need in this world is more courage like this, maybe our fraud in charge could take a good look and act accordingly? There are a lot of folks in high places who have lost the ability to think and perform to adequate levels for their position. It takes some guts to admit you have lost the edge needed to perform, but the marxists teach love of self above all others, so the Occupy and expect tribute for FAILURE. It starts young with indoctrination, giving trophys to every participant win or lose.

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 8:50 AM

Phil in in pa said:

Cardinal Mahoney is a good example of a poor Priest. His talents moved him into the hiarchy His ego dropped him into speech making and pontificating at the lowest level. Pity Rome did not move him into a convent for a lesson in humility. He won't go away as long as he has a puplit or microphone. Hopefully good clergy will outshine him soon and he will become another bad memory in a good cause.

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 11:58 AM

Bruce R Pierce in Owensboro, Ky. said:

What other feelings can be expected from the believers of a church that has a human as its leader? When the leader of the Church is Jesus Christ its leadership never changes.

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 7:58 AM

Joe in Texas replied:


The pope is the Bishop of Rome.

Does your church have a preacher? A reverend? You could call him a leader, so what's the difference?

Catholics don't worship the Pope. We worship Jesus, the son of God. To say that any other Christian based religion doesn't have a leader is foolish and naive.

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 1:34 PM

Bruce R Pierce in Owensboro, Ky. replied:

If he is just the "Bishop of Rome" why does he get to set the rules and people bow down and kiss his ring, while Protestant leaders are referred to as "brother"?

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 3:32 PM

Joe in Texas replied:

You attack what you don't understand.

BTW, I hear protestant LEADERS being called Reverend, Preacher, etc.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 10:47 AM

Bruce R Pierce in Owensboro, Ky. replied:

That’s a lot better than "father" especially since the majority of Catholic Priests have never fathered anyone and Matthew 23:9 prohibits calling anyone father spiritually. One has two fathers, the Father in heaven and the father that put them here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 3:25 PM

Tyrone in Cleveland said:

The unexpected resignation of a major world religious leader. Could this be just one more indicator, if you will, that world events are moving toward some climactic crescendo of social, economic, political and spiritual upheaval and finality. In spite of our technology, sophistication, rhetoric, education and alleged enlightenment, there are no secure havens or islands of peace, stability and real prosperity anywhere. The world's condition is simply unsustainable, as it is, and there is a dearth of leadership, ideas and political will.
Perhaps the Creator of the universe, nature and man has seen enough. His hand may be on the switch to intervene and reconcile our greedy and botched "affairs and balances", once and for all.
Perhaps a return to some semblance of humility, reverant reflection and personal prayer should be the daily fare of individuals, churches and governments for the foresseable future....
We'll see, perhaps sooner than we think!

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 4:38 PM