Will all popes after Benedict XVI abdicate?Will all popes after Benedict XVI abdicate?

View Photo Gallery: Pope Benedict XVI said Monday that he will resign at the end of February because he no longer … Continued

View Photo Gallery: Pope Benedict XVI said Monday that he will resign at the end of February because he no longer has the strength to fulfill the duties of his office.

How does one explain why the conservative Pope Benedict XVI finishes his papacy with an almost radically liberal act of abdication, something not done for more than 600 years? Without dismissing politics entirely, I would observe that the Roman Catholic Church has endured for millennia partly because it can subordinate ideological issues to make paramount the survival of the church. Pope Benedict XVI, I believe, announced his retirement from the papacy for the good of Catholicism.

The Roman saying goes: “The pope is only sick when he is dead,” and Benedict is not the first to demonstrate failing health while in office. He is, however, the first one in centuries to retire voluntarily. Even as the church legislated bishops retire at age 75 and excluded cardinals over 80 from papal elections, the papacy was not treated like these other hierarchical positions. Michael Sean Winters at NCR, writes: “In a single moment, the pope has removed some of the aura of the papacy, the idea that it was a vocation rather than a ministry, something that cannot be abandoned without somehow affronting the Holy Spirit.” I translate that beautifully constructed sentence into a question: “From now on, will popes serve terms of office?”

It is a most modern idea to view the pope as CEO of a global corporation, rather than as a living saint chosen by God. This perspective defines church authority according to the modernizing influences of the II Vatican Council (1962-1964) and breaks with the feudal traditions of medieval Christendom, when popes – like emperors – ruled until they died. I predict that Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy will be remembered more as a progressive step towards modernity rather than a pontificate with very conservative pronouncements.

A scholar and promoter of change at the II Vatican Council where as a young cleric he was afforded the status of peritus or “expert,” Joseph Ratzinger was sometimes liberal and sometimes conservative but always thoughtful. Unlike a purely pragmatic administrator, his papacy demonstrated an academician’s sensitivity to human history and theological nuance. Consider how his encyclical
Caritas In Veritate
was chock-full of nuance for both sides of every issue. Predictably, some decided to attribute to Pope Benedict only the parts that were conservative (gold), and reject what was liberal (red), and the Web site of the Catholic League lists, much like a cafeteria menu, mostly his conservative stances omitting papal statements for redistribution of wealth and concern for the environment.

Thus, as a very complex thinker, Benedict knows that the future church requires more intellectual and physical vigor than he could have mustered. Moreover, the deterioration in the health of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, during the pedophilia crisis probably influenced his thinking about papal abdication.

I suspect the issue of whether all popes shall abdicate on health and age premises will be part of the next papal conclave. Certainly, the official line delivered to the press makes this a single decision that imposes no obligation on future popes. Except that it does. Pope Benedict’s initiative forces examination of the papacy as a ministry like other offices of the hierarchy. Perhaps the tradition of pope-until-death will be extended for another pontificate, but questions about its inevitability will not vanish. The question of tenure is also a theological one. It indirectly affects whether the pope is viewed as the quasi-divine “Vicar of Christ on Earth” who possesses infallibility in doctrinal decisions or simply as the temporary head of a global institution, relying on organizational and pastoral skills to lead Catholicism.

Reality forces the forthcoming conclave to recognize that the church is a withering institution in Europe, and the same fate hangs over the organizational vitality in United States where the church is impaled on a cross of political ideologies. In contrast, Catholicism is growing in Africa and much of Latin America where the Vatican’s administrative preoccupations have little traction. Which is more important to the church’s future: to restore the old Catholicism in Europe and North America or press on with a new institution in the rest of the world? Whatever the answer to that dilemma, a younger and more vigorous pope will have to do the leading.

  • di89

    The problem is the misconception that the Church says “The Pope is infallible” which it does not. People seem almost to willfully misunderstand this point.

    Infallibility (explained here better than usual) refers to particular occasions of speaking ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter/the Papacy) on specific topics under specific conditions–which would only apply during one’s tenure as Pope. If you are no longer Pope, Bishop of Rome, you do not speak from the chair. Problem solved.

  • OneidaJack

    I think they’ll all abdicate until they open the books, find the pedophiles and prosecute them. No one wants to wake up every morning with that stench of corruption swirling around his head for the rest of his life. How can a man who actively covers up the crime of pedophilia ever think he’s on the right side of God? He must quit, and beg God for forgiveness. I don’t think God forgives continuing crimes and I don’t think the Pope does either.

  • B2O2

    The Roman Catholic Church, like their American evangelical brethren, has in recent years kicked Jesus to the curb in favor of transforming themselves into a right wing fascist political organization. They might as well just have succession by coups or beer-hall putsches.

  • Jeannie Guzman

    The Church showed her Fascist Leanings in WWII, when the Vatican supported EVERY Fascist regime on the continent of Europe: Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain, Pavelic in Yugoslavia, Spinoza in Portugal and last of all Musellini (I can never spell his name right) in Italy! Unfortunately, it didn’t “Just become” a fascist leaning political organization!

  • Jeannie Guzman

    Jack: I do believe that you’ve “Hit the nail on it’s head!” But it’ll never happen. It took the RCC over 500 years to admit that Galileo was right! The Church won’t open Herself up to international lawsuits right now by admitting that She ineptly mishandled the ongoing Priest Pedophilia Scandal! The Church always taught us that “Repentance” meant “To turn away from evil!” Well that direction about dealing with sin was for our benefit, not Hers!

  • Jeannie Guzman

    Do you remember when one of the Pope Leo’s infallibly spoke out against Galileo! (Q mark broken). It looks like that “Flat Earth” Pope was more than a little wrong and crippled science for hundreds of years, thereafter!