A textual analysis of the resignation speech by Benedict XVI

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Gone are the days when scores of analysts pondered for days over the communiqués of the Soviet regime, investigating their alchemy in search for hints of wider truths and inner meanings that an outright reading of the mere words would otherwise overlook. Yet for some countries and situations textual analysis is still quite appropriate, especially when an announcement is used to reveal decisions of extraordinary impact, where the lack of subsequent words and declarations makes the world concentrate on the little that was said, trying to better understand what is at stake.

By this measure, the papal communiqué through which Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation as Pontiff on February 11 certainly commands maximum attention and deserves a textual analysis.

The occasion is quite tempting, because most of the main questions arising in similar exercises on the authenticity of the document are already answered. Is the text authentic? Yes, the Pope himself read it.

Does it embody his own will? Of course, given the enormity of the news. And, most importantly: did he write it himself? Most probably yes and, for any help and support that may have been given by external hands, there's no doubt that Benedict XVI weighed and polished it carefully and personally, with an attention and expertise that a renowned Latinist like him could certainly afford.

To start with, the fact that the document is in Latin is crucial in its own right, since Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church. Moreover, being Latin a dead language, it's truly universal, since it's a mother tongue to nobody and puts every reader in the same position. Hence, it is perfectly legitimate to suppose that every single word has been chosen to reflect a meaning that, armed with the appropriate tools, anybody can penetrate, appreciating the subtlety of a language whose terms, often by the work of Christianity, have grown in their meaning in a unique way through the centuries.

The first thing to notice is that the text is perfectly crafted from a structural point of view. The main message, the recognition of incapacity, is central also in a literal sense: it lies at the very heart of the announcement, halfway from top to bottom, directing all attention there. The first part is a crescendo towards the decision; the rest is pure consequence (the calling of the Conclave to elect a new Pope) and the decision to serve through a life of prayer. Experts of canonic law also find a high degree of juridical precision and grounding in the tradition, as the formula ingravescente aetate (because of growing age), used to explain the resignation, first appears in the decree “Christus Dominus”, approved by the Vatican Council II in 1965. In that document, paragraph 21 expressly calls for Bishops to spontaneously resign from office, if incapacitated by old age or if so invited by the competent authorities. From a legal standpoint, therefore, the document withstands the test of any juridical review as to its legitimacy.

Stylistically, there is strong coherence in the first part about the “certainty” that the Pope's strengths are no longer suited to the “Petrine ministry”. The expression translated in English with “certainty” is actually cognitionem certam (clear recognition) that in Latin recalls a sense of “deep understanding” of things, something that goes beyond logic and encompasses it, referring to some truth that is beyond any doubt. The word has a philosophical ring to it and is akin to an understanding reached through a demonstration that has endured all trials and therefore is unassailable. Later on in the text, in the central passage, Benedict XVI uses another verb, agnoscere (recognize) with reference to his failing strengths. The root of agnoscere is related to cognitionem and reinforces the sense of “being obliged to accept an evident truth”. The conclusion that age is an obstacle to his work is therefore presented as the result of an all-round analysis that does not allow for other possibilities: leaving his office is grave but consequential with a situation that has been fully meditated.

What is at stake, indeed, is the “Petrine ministry” (munus Petrinus), that requires adequate strengths for its exercise. The English translation uses the word “ministry” to translate both munus (used twice in the Latin version) and ministerium (appearing three times), but a minor difference exists between the two terms. The “Petrine ministry”, to be exact, is the special function embodied by the Pontiff as leader of the Catholic Church and recalls the unique role of Peter, while “ministry” alone points to the function of a given religious figure, like a Bishop or a priest, not necessarily the Pope. Benedict XVI, however, firstly avows his inadequacy to be a successor of Peter as leader of the Church and explains that the role requires “not only words and deeds”, but also “prayer and suffering”. Here, some inconsistency seems to set in, since while the Pope recalls the deterioration of his strength, barring him from the ministry, he nonetheless concludes his speech with a promise to serve the Holy Church “also in the future” (etiam in futuro) “through a life dedicated to prayer”. One should conclude that what the Pope feels to be lacking is not the will to pray, but the strength to suffer and to face “questions of deep relevance for the life of faith”, therefore pointing to a suffering of the spirit rather than the body. Further, it is worth noting that he mentions “the life of faith” and not “the life of the Church” as an institution: this declaration alone should make redundant any search for obscure intrigues in the Vatican, as the Pope himself admits in front of the Cardinals that there are issues which require serious decisions, that however he's not fit to take and for which he is not able to suffer accordingly (although he will certainly pray). The very admission that “questions of deep relevance” do exist, coupled with the Pontiff’s inability to suffer seems to lead into another direction: a subtler recognition that maybe inability is not determined only by age.

A hint may lie in the last passage, where the Pope thanks the Cardinals for “all the love and work” in support of his ministry and where he asks pardon “for all [his] defects”. Defecti, in Latin, is somehow different from how “defects” sounds in English today: defecti are in fact what one is lacking of, what one misses by making him or her remote from an ideal standard of virtue. In this sense also an omission can be a “defect”: the omission of being adequate to one's calling. It may be a stretch to say that in this sentence lies the admission of a sense on inadequacy that pre-dates the weakness of old age. Yet, in his desire to serve the Church through a life of prayer the Pope seems adamant and well-disposed to help strongly. One may conclude that, from his point of view, Benedict XVI, rather than incapacitated, has considered himself not apt for governing the “bark of Peter” in the storm of modern times. Since there are no more words to comment on, however, we will need to be patient and wait for the work of the historians.