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Papal Succession Process Differs For Resignation Vs. Death


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to hear now some of the implications of this morning's news that Pope Benedict XVI will step down. It's fair to say that Benedict's announcement took the world's one billion Catholics by surprise. The Vatican spokesman said even those around the pope were surprised during a meeting of cardinals this morning when he said he was resigning as of February 28th. He also set into motion a succession process that promises to be unlike any in modern times.

We're joined now by Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University.

Welcome to the program.


MONTAGNE: Now, at the age of 85, Pope Benedict said he was no longer up to the physical challenge of a modern papacy. It's pretty unprecedented. Is there any indication that there was any other reason than health?

REESE: Well, not so far. I mean, I think that this is absolutely extraordinary. We haven't had a papal resignation since the 15th century, and that was part of trying to resolve the Great Western Schism. So this is extraordinary.

I think based on what the pope has said in the past - he said in the past that he would not resign just because it was a tough job, but only if it became necessary because of health reasons. So I think that he has decided for the good of the church to step aside, to have someone else be the pope, because he feels that he just is not up to the job anymore.

MONTAGNE: Now, how different might the process be of choosing a new pope without, you know, the mourning period and the fact that the previous pope had died?

REESE: I think that the procedures will go automatically in the same fashion. After - I would guess that within 15 days after his resignation, the cardinals will meet in Rome, go into conclave behind closed doors, and then elect a new pope. Under the rules, I don't think that even Pope Benedict can attend the conclave once he resigns, because when he resigns, I guess he becomes - he goes back to being a cardinal. And he's over 80 years of age, so I don't think he will be allowed to attend the conclave.

MONTAGNE: Very, very interesting. And many of the current cardinals were appointed by this pope. Do you think that means we'll see a church - pretty much the same course as in the next papacy?

REESE: Yes. You know, around 55 percent of the cardinals were appointed by Pope Benedict. And, of course, the rest of them were appointed by John Paul II, and were the ones who actually elected Pope Benedict. So I think we will see a lot more continuity than we'll see change, especially on the major issues that face the church. After all, the pope does exactly what you or I would do if we were pope. He appoints people who agree with him on the basic issues facing the church.

MONTAGNE: Now, what do you think Pope Benedict's legacy will be?

REESE: Well, I think it's going to be a rich legacy. I think his writings are an important part of his legacy. He saw himself as a teacher. I think his work to resolve the sexual abuse crisis has been very important. Even as a cardinal, he set up procedures to get rid of bad priests. You know, he didn't do it as fast or as well as people would like. But he certainly did it better than any of the other cardinals in Rome, and better than Pope John Paul II.

I think he will also go down as a pope of continuity with John Paul II. We've seen two papacies in a row now that have been very concerned about orthodoxy, about preserving traditions in the church, and concerned about dissidents: theologians or nuns or priests who are getting out of line and not doing what the Vatican wants. So I think all of that is going to be part of his legacy.

MONTAGNE: You know, we just have about 15 seconds. Sorry about that. But where do you think he'll spend his retirement?

REESE: Good question. He could go to a monastery. I think he will probably go somewhere nice and quiet, where he can write and be left alone.

MONTAGNE: Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, thank you very much.

REESE: You're welcome.


And now let's go to Benedict's homeland, Germany, where we found NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of several German leaders who took to the airwaves today to laud Pope Benedict XVI.


NELSON: She says Germans felt proud when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope. Born in a small Bavarian village, he was the first German to head the Catholic Church since the 11th century. But the Protestant chancellor's relationship with the pope was not always harmonious. In early 2009, she blasted his decision to rehabilitate a bishop who had denied the Holocaust. Many German Catholics were also unhappy with his conservative approach.

Military veteran and graduate student Andre Guenther called it a good sign that the pope was retiring. Reached by phone in the city of Remagen, he tells NPR that it makes his church seem more progressive.

ANDRE GUENTHER: Maybe it will help to make the church a little bit more younger, and keep the pope more flexible and healthier and more active.

NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.