The Swiss press hailed on Tuesday Pope Benedict’s decision to step down at the end of the month, calling it wise and clear-sighted, but warned that his successor will most likely not bring about major change to the Catholic Church.
In his surprise announcement on Monday, the 85-year-old Benedict said his strength in recent months "has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me".
For Geneva’s Le Temps, “the 21st century’s first elected pope has chosen to leave, accepting to admit his impotence”, a noble and lucid decision it says must be respected.
Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) called for Joseph Ratzinger’s example to become the norm in the church, where popes are expected to die on the job. “Christ’s representative also runs up against his human frailties from time to time,” it wrote.
When Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, he was at 78 the oldest pope in 300 years. With his resignation, he may have sought to spare the church another agonising end, as was the case with John Paul II - and, in the process, perhaps keep in step with the realities of modern-day medicine.
As Zurich’s Tages Anzeiger pointed out, “for years, the world was able to watch [John Paul II’s] physical decline until his final agony. For the intellectual Joseph Ratzinger, this was never an option.”
“It is highly likely that he reached the decision alone that as he got older he was no longer capable of fulfilling the taxing duties of the papacy,” it added.
In the church, bishops are forced to resign at the age of 75, and cardinals over 80 are barred from voting in a conclave to elect a new pope. It's only the man seated on Peter’s throne who is expected to rule for life.
The papers are divided on his legacy. For the tabloid Blick, Ratzinger was up against it from the start when he replaced his charismatic predecessor. “Nobody would have succeeded in stepping out of the shadow of John Paul II,” it said.
For Fribourg’s La Liberté, the pope has failed to make a major impact.
“What if abdicating was the strongest decision of his pontificate? It is a break with tradition. It humanises the man on Peter’s throne: a pope is first and foremost a human being who cannot be held to the impossible,” it wrote.
For many media analysts, Ratzinger had accepted the job against his own wishes and was far more comfortable working in the shadows than standing front and centre.
The NZZ found that the pope was “unable to shake his image of the German professor who preferred to spend his time behind his desk writing. But to run the worldwide Catholic Church, other qualities are needed.”
For La Liberté, Joseph Ratzinger failed to move the church into the 21st century, stuck in his own conservative tradition and playing the same old score.
“The church’s doctrine has not budged, and the desire of many faithful of a return to evangelical sources is not satisfied. All which gives an idea of the huge expectations that await his successor,” it added.
Le Temps admitted that the pope, a pure intellectual, faced an uphill battle in getting his message through.
“The Catholic Church is a boat facing strong and contradictory currents, so complex that they cannot be understood by a society that seeks shortcuts and is looking for morality where only faith exists.”
A new pope
Speculation is, of course, rife as to who will succeed Benedict, but the papers don’t expect the winds of change to be blowing in the Sistine Chapel when the cardinals meet to elect a new pope.
The conclave, the NZZ pointed out, is stacked with conservatives chosen by John Paul and Benedict, a fact that douses any hope of a break with the past. “Given today’s challenges, the current pope failed to help his church move forward,” it added.
And the cardinals will face another challenge the church has not faced for over 600 years: the outgoing pope will still be around.
“Every sentence, every word he utters now will weigh more heavily,” wrote the Blick. “Benedict XVI has proven that he is a giant of theology. Now he must prove he is just as wise.”