Harvard Divinity School professors reacted with surprise—and, in some cases, comprehension—to Pope Benedict XVI’s historic announcement Monday that he will resign as head of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of this month.
In an announcement delivered in Latin to a crowd of cardinals, the 85-year-old German pontiff said that he no longer has the strength to carry on in his position. He will officially step down on Feb. 28, ending an eight-year papacy that was often rife with controversy.
For many, including Divinity School professor Kevin J. Madigan, the news came as a shock.
“I do not think anyone saw this coming, including bishops and archbishops around the world,” Madigan wrote in an email.
Yet other faculty members were less surprised. Divinity School professor Francis S. Fiorenza, who is a former student of the pope, said that his old teacher had “dropped hints” of an impending resignation in previous public statements.
“In several interviews, he said if he felt he was too frail or too sick to do the job that he would resign... So for him to retire at 85 makes perfect sense,” Fiorenza said.
Divinity School professor Francis X. Clooney wrote in an email that, although Benedict’s decision to step down seems shocking and novel, the act of resignation was “not in itself very significant.”
“There was/is no rule that a pope has to serve for life. Benedict is a sober and sensible man; we all live longer these days, and he seems to have recognized his mortality, and the limits of his strength,” Clooney said.
Though Benedict is the first pope to have stepped down in almost 600 years, many—including Benedict’s late predecessor Pope John Paul II—have faced deteriorating conditions in their final years. Madigan speculated that this history may have influenced Benedict’s decision.
“I am sure that, having witnessed John Paul II’s slow physical and mental decline, even as he continued to hold the office of pope, he did not wish to decline in the same way, publicly and while holding the highest office in the church,” Madigan wrote.
Professors also said that Benedict’s resignation inevitably raises questions about the path of succession.
While Fiorenza voiced doubt that an American will fill the position, saying he believes that the next pope will be someone who has had extensive Vatican experience in the last few years, Clooney suggested that the transition could prompt renewal.
“It is always notable when there is the prospect of a new pope coming into office, since this makes possible new ideas and change in the Church,” Clooney wrote.
Clooney added that he expects that the swiftly approaching selection process, which slated to be complete before Easter Sunday on March 31, will leave the Vatican in flux.
“That the election of a new pope will happen on relatively short notice, without much preparation, creates an uncertain situation, possibly a dramatic one,” Clooney said.
—Staff writer Zohra D. Yaqhubi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @zohrayaqhubi.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Feb. 14, 2013
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the gender of Harvard Divinity School professor Francis S. Fiorenza, who is in fact a man.