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Pope Benedict’s Legacy Is Inextricably Bound to His Resignation—And Not Just Because It Was Unprecedented

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David Van Biema, TIME's former religion writer, is the co-author of The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing Your Faith With a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice.

He announced it in Latin, which was like him. Because of that choice, and because the event on the morning of Feb. 11, 2013, had been scheduled as a routine piece of Vatican business, several of the Cardinals present didn’t immediately realize what they had just heard. Benedict XVI, the great traditionalist, had announced his intent to do something no pope had in more than 600 years: “I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter.”

A pope does not resign—that had been the modern wisdom. Popes are not like studio heads; there is a supernatural element to their election and, the assumption went, a supernatural element to their departure. They waited until God took them.

Yet Benedict, then nearly 86 old and nearly a decade before his death on Saturday at age 95, knew that, tradition notwithstanding, there is no canon law against resigning. He explained that strength of mind and body are necessary “to govern the barque [ship] of St. Peter,” His own, he said, had deteriorated to the point where “I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” A few days later he announced that he would spend the rest of his days in a life of prayer, “hidden to the world.”

Under normal circumstances—that is, if the conclave following his resignation had picked a pope who kept the barque pointing the same way Benedict had—his departure’s impact might have taken decades to clarify, and discussions of it would have been a bit theoretical. Years later people would still rehearse it for you. Fr. Thomas Reese, a church liberal whom Benedict once forced to resign from his post as editor of the Jesuit magazine America, lauded the retirement decision. “These days medicine can keep a Pope alive beyond his capacity to handle the affairs of office,“ he said. “It’s good and it’s important that he was humble enough to say, ‘You know, God can take care of this. I can step aside, and it’s God’s church, not my church.’” Pursuing humility to the opposite conclusion, R.R. Reno, editor of the more conservative journal First Things, said, “It’s a bad precedent. We don’t want the Pope to become like a CEO, who needs to resign if he becomes ineffective. I think it’s wrong to think that, through our human agency, we can solve the Church’s problem or avoid any institutional suffering.”

But such considerations were almost immediately rendered quaint. Because the 2013 conclave—to almost everyone’s surprise—played out so as to realize the resignation’s maximum potential for disruption.

When the Cardinals chose their peer Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the name Francis, few expected a hard break from the more than 30-year tradition of theological and moral conservatism established by Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The conclave was looking, among other things, for someone to clean up the inefficient and corrupt papal bureaucracy, or Curia. This meant finding a pope-able candidate from outside Europe and the U.S., which supply much of the Curia staff. During the conclave, Bergoglio, the competent and magnetic Archbishop of Buenos Aires, may have played into this sentiment with a brief speech criticizing the Church’s “spiritual worldliness.” He had not made a name as a liberal, or he would not have been chosen.

However, in office, Francis shocked many by de-emphasizing Church animus against active homosexuals and remarried Catholics, and seemingly devoting as much energy to pursuing immigration justice and environmental stewardship as to banning abortion.

For more conservative Catholics, this was like losing your Prohibitionist father and discovering that your stepfather runs a still. And the what-ifs were brutal. If Benedict had not resigned, Francis would obviously not be Pope. But even if Benedict had just soldiered on for four years before resigning, Francis, who was 76 at the time he was chosen to succeed him, would probably never have been Pope—after age 80 Cardinals no longer attend the conclaves from which all modern pontiffs have been chosen. Instead, laments Reno, “we’re revisiting all the things that we fought about in the ’70s,” prior to John Paul’s papacy. “It’s all back.“

And with it, there emerged an acid countercurrent. Papal successions are always accompanied by weapons-grade gossip, but Francis’s was the first in the age of social media. Hints about conspiracy and threats of schism sped from the fringe to the mainstream with startling rapidity, and a retired pope who continued to live in Vatican City, go by his papal name and wear the Papal white cassock, became a kind of dust magnet. The not-so-silly season reached a peak in late 2014 when a conservative columnist for the New York Times, in a piece claiming that Francis could schism the Church, added the only half-facetious warning, “Remember, there is another Pope still living!”

Nobody forgot. A far-right minister in the Italian government displayed a T-shirt that read, “My Pope is Benedict.” Inevitably, the resignation debate gravitated toward modern Catholicism’s great black hole: the sexual abuse tragedy. Conspiracy theorists, determined to blame that scandal on homosexuality, speculated that a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, protecting its own, had blackmailed Benedict out. In 2016, the not-so-hidden retiree volleyed back that there had been a gay lobby, but he had “dismantled” it. In 2018, when the disclosure of predations by the now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick cast a shadow on all three Popes (Francis, Benedict and John Paul II) who might have been expected to know and do something about it, Benedict released a 6,000-word statement blaming the disaster on 1960s sexual liberation and a moral philosophy some would say is reminiscent of Francis’s.

The 2019 Netflix movie The Two Popes, a fictional buddy prequel to Benedict’s resignation, picked up several Oscar nominations, and reflected what most people probably hoped was the vibe of the two men’s relationship. Real life that year was bumpier. Francis (briefly) entertained discussion of ordaining married men in priest-poor parts of the Amazon. Within months a book categorically opposing clerical marriage appeared, featuring a forward announcing “I cannot be silent”—with Benedict as co-author and pictured on the cover. There was an uproar; Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s indispensable friend and secretary, claimed implausibly that Benedict had not known about his co-author status. Gänswein, who worked for both Popes, soon had his duties “redistributed” away from Francis. Early in 2022, a report commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich found that Benedict mishandled at least four abuse cases while he was the city’s Archbishop. Gänswein called the charges unsupportable and said they played into the hands of a movement “that really wants to destroy the person and the work” of the retired pope.

Subsequently, Francis was at pains to deny that there was any kind of rift between him and Benedict, whom he called “sanctity personified.” He asserted to an Italian news agency that “Our relationship is really good, very good, and we agree on what needs to be done.” He added, “Anyone can say and think what they want.”

With Benedict’s passing, Roman Catholicism is again an unambiguously single-pontiff church—for the time being. Francis, citing Benedict’s precedent, has considered retirement, musing that if he were to step down he would drop any papal status for the title of Bishop of Rome Emeritus. “The first experience went very well,” he commented; but in the future “it would be better to define things or explain them better.” This time, everyone knows how important that could be to the church’s barque, downstream.

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