When Pope Benedict XVI made his stunning announcement to “renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter,” believers and nonbelievers alike searched for historical parallels to make sense of the resignation. As many know by now, the last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415—a date so far removed from modern times that the phrase “New World” had not yet even been coined, much less “discovered.”
But Benedict’s resignation is also modern history; it has brought a significant chapter in the life of the Catholic Church to a sudden end: the era of Vatican II.
For the last 55 years, the Church has been led by popes with deep and direct involvement in the Second Vatican Council, the most important ecumenical council since at least the Council of Trent, almost 500 years ago. Pope John XXIII convoked Vatican II; Pope Paul VI continued it, formally closed it and began to implement its teaching; Pope John Paul I took part in it; Pope John Paul II was a major participant in its debates; and Pope Benedict XVI served it as an influential peritus, a theological expert.
One can say, without exaggeration, that the council, held for a few months in Rome every year from 1962 to 1965, served as the historical touchstone for all five popes: It is the one common event in what Christians call salvation history against which their decisions, their writings, their interventions innovative or reactionary, can be understood. Even the towering legacy of John Paul II, who played a crucial role in the struggle against communism in his native Poland and in what used to be called Eastern Europe, cannot make sense without constant reference to his formative participation in Vatican II.
Only about 70 or so of the 2,000-plus council fathers are still alive, the youngest in their 80s. None of the remaining periti have achieved the same high profile or position of influence of Benedict XVI. It is altogether improbable, therefore, that the next pope will be an old hand, a veteran, of Vatican II.
Seen in this light, Benedict’s resignation casts questions about his legacy into sharper relief. Did he push back the reforms of Vatican II? It may be more accurate to say that he strove to recover the other half of the dynamic of the council, the so-called spirit of Vatican II; to the more popular “aggiornamento” or updating, he called attention to “resourcement,” or renewal. Did he make the Church more conservative? Set aside the fundamental futility of applying essentially political terms to religion, but the record does seem to skew toward conservatism, with important exceptions of a liberal or even progressive character. (He was much more supportive of the Society of Jesus, the Church’s largest religious order, for example, and he took the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops, a key Vatican II innovation, to heart.)
Should the world have been surprised by the most untraditional resignation of a perceived traditionalist? It is startling to realize that, in his homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff on April 18, 2005—that is to say, before he was chosen to succeed John Paul II—he may have already signaled a willingness to step down when he spoke about two “essential qualifications” of a pope: obedience and fruitfulness. (The quote and the summary are from John Thorton and Susan Varenne’s excellent anthology, “The Essential Pope Benedict XVI.”) When the Pope realized that his service as pontiff could no longer be as fruitful as he would have hoped, resignation became inevitable.
Benedict XVI leaves behind much unfinished work. After devoting his first and second encyclicals to love and hope, he will not be able to finish a much-awaited encyclical on the third theological virtue of faith. The unfortunate sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the Church continues to burn and remains unresolved. And the “New Evangelization” of a religion-weary Old World that he set as his goal has hardly begun. Now the work belongs, not to the fathers of the council, but to the children of Vatican II.
The last time a pope made an unexpected, epochal, stop-the-press announcement before a small assembly (or consistory) of cardinals was in January 1959, when John XXIII, “trembling a little with emotion,” announced he was convening an ecumenical council. Benedict XVI’s own announcement recalls that moment, and brings the era it inaugurated to an end.