So Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world with the sudden announcement of his imminent resignation on February 28th. According to Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service, it even took most Church insiders by surprise. How is Rome interpreting these developments? What are their likely long-term effects? And where does papal infallibility come into all this? Those questions and many others are answered in this in-depth conversation.

Follow Alessandro Speciale’s Vatican coverage at the Religion News Service website.

Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. To download this audio, click here. Scroll down to read the transcript. To hear the entire February 16, 2013 State of Belief Radio program, click here.


RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Alessandro Speciale


What a week of fast-breaking news out of a traditionally closed world, the Vatican. We’ve been fortunate to be able to read frequent updates from Religion News Service Vatican Correspondent Alessandro Speciale, working, as he has been, immersed in the historic news of a papal resignation sweeping across Rome. We’re very fortunate indeed that he has agreed to step away for just a few minutes to talk with us today on State of Belief Radio.

Alessandro, welcome back to the show!


[WG]: How was this news of the Pope’s resignation received there where you are, in Rome? Was it as much of a shock there as it was in the United States, or did you have some warning?

[AS]: Well, no, everybody was taken by surprise by this announcement. I mean, even if the Pope himself had said he would consider resigning if he felt physically or psychologically incapable of carrying on with his duties, no one saw it coming, because even if he is 85, and he was looking more tired and more frail in recent months, there have been no breakdowns in health; nothing that led to the suspicion that he was actually about to resign at this moment in time.

[WG]: The official explanation for the resignation is the Pope’s deteriorating health. You have just said you could see some deterioration in his health. But is that what is recognized as the real reason for the resignation?

[AS]: Well, no, the official reason is that he didn’t feel he had enough strength to carry on with the job, which means that in a sense, he’s also telling the cardinals and the world that being a pope is not, anymore, just about praying and studying and leading a holy life; but being a pope is nowadays a very public role. It involves traveling, it involves meeting with people, with millions of views when there is a debate, it means being at the center of the world stage. So he is basically telling that the pope is not fit because there has been any breakdown with my health, it is because the requirements of the job of being pope have changed – and an 85-year-old person is not the right person for the job anymore.

[WG]: Alessandro, do you have a sense of the mood inside the Vatican since the announcement? Is it a sense of panic, or sadness, or optimism?

[AS]: From the monsignore I talked to, the first reaction and the sense that is still very much there, because people are still coming to grips with what is happening, has been one of shock, of utter surprise. Some have felt – maybe not let down, but definitely sadness; many monsignors, many cardinals said it openly. And at the time, there’s also been in the Catholic Church an attempt to try to grasp the spiritual meaning of this, in trying to see what it means spiritually, and so, looking forward to what comes next. But definitely, many people were surprised, and – maybe not personally hurt, but received this with a sense of sadness, because they didn’t expect it.

[WG]: Alessandro, I’m curious: when a decision like this is being made by the Pope, and I have no idea how that’s done, but does he consult with other people within the Vatican, or does this decision come strictly from him and private reflection?

[AS]: Well, this is an interesting question. Church law has a provision for the Pope resigning, even if no one had in the last 600 years actually used it. And he clearly consulted it because in the announcement, he repeated word-for-word the formula in Church law so as to make sure it was legally okay, legally valid. At the same time, it seems that he consulted very little, and that this news that he wanted to resign was known just by the very, very few people who are closest to him. And even senior cardinals like Cardinal Bertone and Cardinal Sodano were told just in the few days preceding the announcement.

[WG]: I see. Well, now, a question that has been raised to me, and I suppose this is a theological question, if you take seriously the infallibility of the Pope, how does an infallible pope decide to resign?

[AS]: Well, the answer so far – even if the Vatican is continuing many aspects of a pope and a retired pope inside the Vatican – the aspect of infallibility is probably one of the few things that in the Vatican, people are not excessively worried about. The infallibility, as it is meant by the Catholic Church, is one of the prerogatives of being pope. So once he resigns – he loses it. And even when someone is pope, infallibility has a very narrow meaning. It basically means that when the Pope makes some decision that has a doctrinal impact from the Church – so not everything he does nor everything he says – but just on very few, specific topics, the Church believes that the Holy Spirit will assist the Pope in a special way, so that he can make no wrong, or at least he can’t go excessively wrong – it will basically steer his hand away from very big mistakes. So infallibility has a very narrow meaning, and it’s safe to say the Pope will lose it when he resigns.

[WG]: That’s a very helpful answer for people standing outside that tradition. I know the Pope is the leader of the Church, but he also serves as the head of state for Vatican City. What kind of reaction to his resignation have you seen on the streets?

[AS]: Well, in Rome, because there are no real Vatican citizens – Vatican citizens are mostly cardinals or a handful of Vatican employees – in the streets, the surprise has been big; actually, it has been quite some shock. One of the most common questions was, “Can the Pope actually resign?” Because this is so unprecedented, people didn’t even think it was possible.

[WG]: What do you think Pope Benedict XVI will most be remembered for?

[AS]: Well, probably this decision of his to resign will be one of the key acts that will be remembered of his pontificate. Because it’s still difficult to judge how much of an impact that this will have on the papacy, but probably, it will be a strong and lasting impact, because just think this: when the cardinals meet next month in Rome to elect the Pope’s successor, they might more open to consider a younger candidate; someone who is 60, or maybe not even 60, or in his early 60’s, so that with today’s health, it’s foreseeable that he’s going to have 20 years of healthy life ahead of him, in the knowledge that he might, and potentially will, resign if he feels he’s not up to the job or if there is a need for change, for fresh energy, for fresh ideas in the papacy. And this is something completely unprecedented, because until now, the cardinals had to choose someone that would stay with them for life. It’s one of the reasons why Benedict was chosen, because he was already almost 80 when he was elected pope.

[WG]: Alessandro, I notice in news coverage that some people stay just at the level of the integrity of the resignation. And then there are some who always sound a little suspicious, like: he didn’t want to face the challenges that the Church must face right now, with the continuing scandal related to the priesthood, the debate over contraception that continues, and the really massive challenges that the Church faces. Is it your sense that all of that played into him saying, “I don’t have the strength to do this”?

[AS]: Well, I don’t think he resigned, per se, because of these challenges, because these challenges have always been there. And when he spoke about the possibility of resigning, he also stressed that he didn’t think that a pope should resign under pressure; in fact he said the words, “any ongoing crisis.” In fact, it’s so true: the so-called “butler affair” – the butler stealing his confidential papers. And he waited for this affair to be over before resigning, I think it’s more, and actually, a Vatican-connected newspaper today gave weight to this hypothesis, that he felt that there was a need, to address these challenges, of a different energy, of a different approach; that he wouldn’t be the right person because he was weak, and growing weak and older. And so he possibly wanted to leave the challenge to someone else who might be capable, who might have more the strength to do it.

[WG]: I understand. Would, again, for those of us who don’t understand, as you do, what’s going on, tell us, what is happening now inside the Vatican, and what happens next to the throne of St. Peter?

[AS]: Well, it’s kind of weird, because until February 28th, when the Pope’s resignation actually kicks in and becomes effective, the Vatican tries to portray these last two weeks as business as usual. The Pope goes on with his appointments, he receives bishops, he received the President of Romania, and there have been some minor appointments in the Curia with bishops – so they try to portray that it’s business as usual. Of course, in the meantime, the Vatican is trying to understand what, actually, the Pope’s role will be once he has resigned. Then, on February 28 when he resigns, the Vatican will go into so-called “sede vacante” mode, which means in Latin that there is no one sitting on the throne of Peter, as they say. And this means that a group of cardinals will start meeting regularly, and manage the daily affairs of the Church, and then call for a Conclave, which is all the cardinals who are under 80 from all over the world – there are 117 of them – will come to Rome. And it’s supposed to be between March 15 through March 20, but that could change; they will gather secretly ad with no one watching in the Sistine Chapel, under the famous Last Judgement fresco by Michelangelo, and then they will secretly vote for who’s going to be the next pope.

[WG]: Do you have any idea – is the Pope going to stay in the Vatican, or is he going to go home?

[AS]: Apparently, he’s going to stay in the Vatican. There’s a small convent inside the Vatican walls where there was a handful of nuns who left last autumn, and it’s being renovated to prepare it to be the home, the retirement home, of the retired pope.

[WG]: I see. Well, I’m going to ask you a question I bet you’ve been asked a hundred times by now: do you have any sense where the next pope is likely to come from?

[AS]: Ha! That’s a very difficult question. People say that the Church is ripe for a non-European pope; someone coming, maybe, from Latin America, where the most Catholics live, or from Africa, where the Catholic Church is actually growing, as opposed to Europe and North America – but that’s very difficult to say, because most of the cardinals that will elect the pope are European; one in four of them is, in fact, Italian. So it’s going to be really difficult for someone outside of Europe to be appointed. This is a very difficult Conclave, I guess, to predict. There is no clear front-runner.

[WG]: Is there, from what you know about what happens in a Conclave, is there very frank debate that talks about how someone can handle the various challenges that you and I have mentioned?

[AS]: Well, when the cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel, it’s actually just for voting. The trying to understand and the consultation between each other actually happen before the voting, or outside the voting. The cardinals live sheltered and shielded from the outside world in a complex inside the Vatican called Santa Marta, which is a bit like a luxury hotel. That’s where they stay; and they are secluded in there for the days of the Conclave. So I guess over meals and in this kind of social moment, there is actually going to be discussion – but with no open campaigning, no speeches and programs and open bids for the job.

[WG]: Well, it’s a very dramatic and intriguing process. Alessandro, you’re in Vatican City. When you look at global news coverage of this event, is there anything that you see missing or not understood? Is there something in particular that you think needs to be explained to Catholics and others who are following this story that they may not be hearing about?

[AS]: Well, I think what is missing in coverage, probably what is missing most times from coverage of the Catholic Church and actually of every coverage of very complex historical institutions that have a long tradition which requires some kind of effort from the journalists and from the audience to understand. And even though I know the rites and the ways of the Catholic Church can look – and in fact, are – byzantine and illogical by modern standards, and probably often just don’t make much sense, at the same time, to understand them, you have to try to put yourself in their own place. And this is a place where, for 2,000 years, history has been made; things have been done on a long, uninterrupted sequence. And so tradition and the old ways are very cherished, because they’re considered as a key part of the Vatican and of Catholicism.

[WG]: This is a very busy time for Alessandro Speciale, who is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service. We reached him in Rome where he’s been doing an outstanding job of covering the fast-breaking story of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation effective February 28th. You can follow his coverage at He has been insightful and helpful to us.

Alessandro, for being with us today on State of Belief, Grazie mille!

[AS]: Grazie a voi. Thank you!


State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.

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Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.

In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.

While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.

Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.


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