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A traditional papacy ends with a surprise

By Christopher Bellitto, Special to CNN
updated 2:12 PM EST, Mon February 11, 2013
  • Pope Benedict's resignation leaves the church and the world in unfamiliar, but not entirely uncharted, territory
  • This pope will go down in history as more interested in high-end theology than modern evangelism
  • He was unable to hit the right note when it came to addressing the priest sex abuse scandal
  • It seems likely this careful theologian and prototypical company man will fade quietly from public view

Editor's note: Christopher M. Bellitto is chair and associate professor of history at Kean University in Union, NJ. He is the author of 101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy.

(CNN) -- Yes, a pope can resign but it hasn't happened for nearly 600 years. The surprising news from Rome Monday leaves the church and the world in unfamiliar, but not entirely uncharted, territory.

The last time a pope resigned was in 1415, when Pope Gregory XII resigned during the worst institutional crisis in the church's history.

Called the Great Western Schism, there were not only three popes but three colleges of cardinals competing for allegiance. Gregory's heroic stepping down helped the church heal at a critical moment.

It is quite likely that Benedict's shocking move will help burnish his reputation in the long run.

Abuse by priests mars pope's legacy
Pope Benedict's German roots
Pope Benedict's legacy and controversies

His papacy has been a bumpy one, marked by poor communication among his Vatican staff, and with the church at large.

Certainly his controversial wording about Islam in his speech at Regensburg in 2006 was an example of a scholar pope unable to reach a mass audience, especially when compared to the media maestro John Paul II.

All sorts of internal curial squabbling marked what was supposed to be a Roman housecleaning by a German administrator who didn't turn out to be up to that task.

Pope Benedict's statement in full

This pope will go down in history in the line of scholar popes more interested in high-end theology than modern evangelism.

But that should not be seen as a criticism even though anyone elected after the superstar John Paul II was destined -- perhaps doomed -- to seem smaller compared to such a giant.

All eras of church histories have seen different popes for different times, so perhaps what the church needed was a quiet pope after a boisterous papacy.

Yet the introverted pope who played Mozart seemed unable to hit the right note when it came to addressing the major issue of the last decade: The priest sex abuse scandal and the related problem of bishops who protected predators. This makes for a decidedly mixed verdict -- at least today.

CNN iReport: What do you think?

The precedents to his surprise move are few.The first pope to resign was Pontian, in 235, when Christianity was still an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. He was deported from Rome to Sardinia to a prison known for its brutality. Since he knew he would die there, he resigned so a successor would be in place.

The pope's German roots

The most famous resignation is Celestine V in 1294. A hermit, totally unsuited to the politics of the medieval papal court, he resigned after less than half a year in office. Dante famously put Celestine at the gates of hell for his "great refusal" or, in Italian, il gran rifiuto.

So why is Pope Benedict resigning?

It seems, like Celestine V and maybe even Paul VI, that Benedict was never quite comfortable as pope.

It could be that this very traditional man is setting a helpful precedent for modern medical times, and making papal resignations easier in the future due to ill health. Benedict may have simply come to the moment where he realized he couldn't do the job any more.

Unlike John Paul II, who decided to stay in the job, Benedict is offering a different model. Pope Benedict will surely retire quietly to a Benedictine monastery to keep writing, the life he imagined for himself before his election.

Abuse mars legacy

The question now is what authority does have an ex-pope have. When he renounces the papal throne, he no longer has papal authority.

Joseph Ratzinger must be very careful not to interfere or to answer the inevitable phone calls when his successor makes a move that appears different from the one he would have made.

To interfere would be out of character, so it seems likely that this careful theologian and prototypical company man will go gently into that good night.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Bellitto

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