The Man Who Didn't Want to Be Pope

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There is only one fun moment in Charles Curran's autobiography Loyal Dissent. Curran, a priest who eventually had his license to teach Catholic theology yanked by the Vatican, is at a meeting with the future pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s.

Ratzinger then headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the teaching arm of the Catholic Church. Curran dissented with some vigor from many of the teachings of that Church. This was a problem because it was his employer.

As one of Ratzinger's colleagues explained in the meeting, Catholic theologians have a special duty to teach the Catholic faith, full stop. If I disagreed with those teachings, he said, by way of example, I would have to resign my post and serve out my days as a parish priest.

Curran bristled at that, calling it an insult to parish priests everywhere. According to Curran, "Ratzinger then responded that he himself would rather be a parish priest than to hold his current office."

You could think of that as a slight joke, a bit of understated German wit from the future pontiff. Except then you'd have to account for the bear with a backpack.

The bear is on Benedict's papal seal. The legendary story is of the Frankish Saint Corbinian. Corbinian was called to Rome. Along the way, a bear attacked the priest and his packhorse, killing the horse. Rather than flee in terror, the saint rebuked the bear and made the animal carry his luggage the rest of the way to the Vatican, then let it roam free.

When the retiring Pope Benedict XVI tells this story, he compares himself not to the saint but to the bear. And sometimes he laments that once his predecessor John Paul II dragged him to Rome, he did not allow him his freedom. Ratzinger tried to resign and return to Germany to teach theology a few times. His pope wouldn't allow it.

Then came the papal conclave following John Paul II's death in 2005. Cardinal Ratzinger gave a speech that railed against as many secular ideologies as he could think of and called for cleansing the church of the accumulated "filth" of its recent sex scandals. The speech was reviled by liberals and was thought to be a sort of warning to his fellow cardinals: Do not elect me pope. Yet when the smoke cleared over St. Peter's Square, there he was.

There will be plenty of assessments of the pope's legacy this week. For what it's worth, as a Catholic I think he took the job seriously and made some halting progress toward dealing with the church's recent scandals. Also, he tried to heal some old rifts among Christians of various confessions and exhibited heroic courage by visiting Turkey while many Muslims were still burning him in effigy for a quotation that was ripped wildly, even laughably, out of context.

But the thing I find most worth comment today is that you could tell from the start that this was a job the pope did not want. Benedict didn't issue many encyclicals. Instead, he wrote and published three books about Jesus Christ. He made clear that his writings on this subject were very far from infallible. In fact, he practically begged laymen and scholars of all confessions to have at them.

And now, citing his failing health, Benedict has stunned much of the world by announcing his resignation from the papacy. This makes him one of the few popes to abdicate his throne and the first in 600 years to do so. The Bishop of Rome has finally decided to give the bear back its freedom.

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