Should Pope Benedict Resign?

With all the sex abuse scandals afflicting the Catholic Church today, some of which happened on Pope Benedict’s watch back when he was Archbishop of Munich and later on when he was Cardinal Prefect in charge of the Vatican ’s doctrinal office, he certainly must be tempted to throw in the towel and call it quits.  As a theologian who is capable of writing beautiful prose and inspiring sermons, he is, at his own admission, not much of an administrator—something that he reportedly warned the cardinals about when they chose him to succeed John Paul II back in April of 2005.  Since then, all whole series of gaffes and unwise decisions, some of them apparently at his own initiative, others by his subordinates without much coordination between them, have occurred.  As a result, some, if not too many, are beginning to wonder if what the church needs at this moment in its history is the chance to start over again with new captain at the helm.

No doubt, to many, even the suggestion that a pope could resign sounds like heresy.  But it has happened before.  Two major examples come to mind.  One was at the end of what has been called “the great western schism” when for a period of approximately 30 years, two different men, elected by rival (mostly French vs. mostly Italian) groups of cardinals each claimed to be pope.  Then to top things off, the Spaniards elected a third claimant.  The only solution to the mess was to call a general council which began at Constance in Germany in 1412.  There the assembled bishops, abbots, and theologians (after condemning Wycliff and Hus) persuaded two of the rivals to resign from their claimed position, and, when he proved uncooperative, deposed the third.  Then the council itself, and not the college of cardinals, by which now no one trusted, elected a new pope (Martin V) in 1417.

The other major example I can think of, perhaps even more to the point, happened nearly two centuries earlier, when the cardinals, as usual, in a deadlock over who they would elect, an aged Italian abbot, Peter di Morone, wrote them a letter threatening God’s wrath if they didn’t do their duty and elect a pope.  So what happened?  You probably guessed it: finding no one else they could agree upon, they elected the abbot Peter instead!  He became known as Pope Celestine V and turned out to be so incompetent an administrator that he begged to be allowed to resign after only five months in office. Then, instead of letting him go back to his own monastery, his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, locked him up in another monastery near Naples to make sure no one persuaded him to change his mind.  He died ten months later on May 19, 1296. Only seventeen years later, Peter di Morone/Celestine V was canonized as a saint.

I think there is a lesson for the church in all this history, especially for today.  Since the Second Vatican council was held, forty-some years ago, a lot of things have changed in the church, especially in regard to how long anyone is left in charge.  Many religious orders elect new leadership every six years or so.  In many dioceses, pastors are also moved after a similar number of years. Bishops and archbishops are now expected to retire at age 75, and even cardinals, although they retain their title and fancy red robes, lose their power to elect a pope after they turn 80.  So why not the pope as well?  As they say though in this care we’ll reverse the saying) “What is good for Paul, should be good for Peter (or his successor)” or even better, for the whole church.

But to go one step further, why not eliminate the College of Cardinals as well? A relic of the days when only the pastors in Rome and a few neighboring bishops elected the pope, or later on, when a few archbishops and other special appointees of the pope were allowed the honor of picking his successor, why not just have the heads of the various national bishop’s conferences, elected by the bishops of their own country, take their place? Certainly that would contribute much more to the “collegiality” between the pope and the bishops (especially if they were themselves elected by the local clergy and people – as was the case in the early church) called for by Vatican II.

All in all, I’d say that the present crisis, for all its grief, could turn out to be the great turning point in which one of the promises of the Second Vatican Council, in part crafted by the young theologian Josef Ratzinger, became a reality under the leadership of that same theologian now grown old and wise enough, and powerful enough, to do what needs to be done.

R W Kropf    4/20/10                                           Benedict Resign?.doc