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
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
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
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.