The Pope’s Resignation

I suspect that Pope Benedict’s announcement on 2/11 of his intention to resign from office at the end of the month will have as great an impact on the future of the Roman Catholic Church around the world as did 9/11 did on the USA, but hopefully, with much more beneficial consequences for the future of Christianity than the 9/11 trauma did on American society.

        Historically speaking, this latest event is almost, but not quite, unprecedented.  While the news channels are claiming that the last recorded papal resignation occurred almost 600 years ago, that is not quite accurate.  What happened then was that the assembled bishops and theologians at the Council of Constance had persuaded two rival claimants (one Italian and another one French) to the papal throne to drop their disputed claims to be pope and outright deposed a third claimant (a Spaniard).  This was accomplished without trying to determine who in fact was the legitimately elected pope to begin with, but finally ending (with the council electing Pope Martin V in 1417) the nearly forty-year period that historians call “The Great Western Schism”.   Thus, we have to turn further back to the 13th century, when after little more than five months as pope, the aged hermit-monk Pietro da Morrone, who had been made, somewhat against his will, Pope Celestine V, voluntarily resigned office in December, 1294, pleading his administrative incompetence.

        As for what is happening now, I would see it as the logical outcome of certain decisions made at the Second Vatican Council, which, in the 1960s, decreed that all bishops tender their resignation from office when they turn 75 years of age, plus the rule, added by Pope Paul VI in 1970, that once they turn 80, even cardinals no longer have a vote in electing the next pope.  If so, it is only logical that the Bishop of Rome –- which, after all, is the office that makes someone to be “pope” -- should follow the same rules the council set generally for all other bishops.   Add to this, if cardinals are not to be considered capable of electing a pope after they turn 80, should they be electing someone to serve as pope when he is close to becoming even older than they are?

        Even more significant, however, might be this papal resignation for the future.  Despite the great advances in medicine –- of maybe because of them –- the idea of life-tenure for any office of great importance has become ever more problematic.  Most religious orders in the Catholic Church have recognized this for some time, with many of them electing their chief superiors for 4 to 6 year terms, even if, in many cases, renewable.  It has generally turned out to be a wise policy.  Might we not foresee the day when the same policy might prevail in the hierarchy?  If so, it might be seen as a return to the pattern of the very earliest days of Christianity when “bishops” (from the Greek episcopus, a word that, in plain English, actually means “over-seer”, or in fancier English, “superintendent”) were seen more as the elected chairman of a board of presbyters (that is, “priests” or “elders”).

        As for Pope Benedict (aka Josef Ratzinger) himself, let’s hope he is treated better than Peter- Celestine was upon his resignation.  Peter’s reward for resigning was to be imprisoned in monastic cell near Naples by his successor who feared the old man would change his mind and try to reclaim the papacy back again.  Still imprisoned, he succumbed to a fever about a year later.  Let’s pray that Josef-Benedict has a happier retirement in his beloved Bavaria.  Then, to add a note of irony to all this, we should remember that Peter Celestine was declared a saint only seventeen years after his death.  Maybe we should hope for the same for the gentle theologian who never seems to have really wanted the weighty job of being pope in the first place.


R W Kropf    2/11/13                                                          Pope’s Resignation.doc   13/02/11.html