Whether or not it was a misunderstanding, the notion is now officially out there, thanks to the speedy internet age. When might a pope resign?

It would not be a novel career move; popes have resigned. Four of them, I think, out of two-hundred sixty-some. Most notable might be Saint Clement I, Peter’s third successor.

I’ve read the artificial theology arguing against the possibility of a retired pope retaining a following and detracting from the leadership of the successor. I’m not impressed with this line of thought: we don’t live in the Age of Avignon. An ailing pope will leave any number of papabile in the curia usurping authority. We saw it in the last papacy with guys like Cardinal Arinze doing some globetrotting to get his face and voice out there.

A pope resigns and there might–only might–be some confusion. An infirm or dysfunctional pope stays on and multiply the confusion by the number of self-important figures near the top of the hierarchy. Pick your poison: possible a second pope or definitely a handful of little popes.

Like it or not, the thought is now out there, and it can’t help but compromise Pope Benedict’s authority further. The supercurialists will feel emboldened. And why not? The Bishop of Rome is willing to concede many points to conservatives for the sake of unity. And if the SSPX gets prime attention, how much more will a “loyal” curialist receive?

The detractor list will dismiss more readily anything that comes from B16; they’ll figure they can wait him out. Instead of a focus on what the pope does well, theology, we’ll get people in the Church and out looking to his errors. The Church will do its best to repair relations with Jews, and the unexcommunication will fade as news, not unlike the mutual 1965 effort by pope and Orthodox patriarch. But I think a shadow has crossed this papacy, and it goes to something systemic, something deeper than alienation of Jewish people. There are now questions about the pope’s leadership ability, and even his stomach for the hard choices he faces with an upstart curia. There is not a whole lot of evidence that things are going to improve, at least until another pope is elected. Like it or not, we may have come to the downslope of Pope Benedict’s time to serve. Whether that slide last a few months or a year or two until a resignation, or a fairly healthy octagenarian hangs on for a decade, we seem to be in another holding pattern. And when the Church is faced with challenges within and without, now may not be the best time for a theological caretaker.

What do you think?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Church News, Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Resigned

  1. I think this is a brave, bold, thought-provoking post and can only imagine the responses you’ll get *if* super-traditionalists read your blog.

    Re: B16. Love his scholarship even if I don’t agree with his position(s). It’s a pleasure to have an intellectual at the helm. Alas, the 21st century church cannot get by with having a not-mere but still a college professor in charge.

    As I’ve written elsewhere, the Williamson mess is just the tip of a deep, dangerous iceberg.

  2. John Heavrin says:

    I guess anything’s possible, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you, Todd. Other than that one report, I certainly haven’t seen anything suggesting that the Holy Father is considering resigning. I would never presume to speak for the pope, but I don’t think he sees it as a job you quit, but as a vocation given by the Lord to be accepted and lived until the Lord decides otherwise, through joys and sorrows.

    Instead of engaging in what really amounts to nothing more than unseemly wishful-thinking and gossip, let us instead redouble our prayers for the Holy Father and the success and holiness of his pontificate, especially in difficult days such as these.

    Herr Gemmingen might want to update his resume, though.

  3. Liam says:

    This is…premature. Easily.

  4. Todd says:

    Well … I think I’m old enough to be past placing my hopes in people. I’m not a hero-worshipper, and I have grave doubts about the anti-hero movement.

    That said, my wish that the pope would clean up the curia does not affect the prayers I say or don’t say for the man in Peter’s seat. As pope he is responsible for how Catholicism is seen in the world, and he is not infallible in the handling of his responsibility as a leader.

    That Benedict is a holy man is beyond doubt. But I pray for the fruits of the Spirit, rather than worldly success for the pope. The notion that people are neatly divided into thos who pray but don’t criticize, and criticize but don’t pray is plain false.

  5. John Heavrin says:

    Reading comprehension, Todd. I said “success,” not “worldly success.”

    Also, you say in your second paragraph “he is responsible for how Catholicism is seen in the world,” then in your third that you don’t pray for “worldly success for the pope.” I guess it depends on what you mean by “worldly success,” but as the term is usually understood, it’s been centuries since it had anything to do with the papacy. I don’t think the Holy Father is about “worldly success,” and when I say “success of his pontificate,” I refer to carrying out his role as Vicar of Christ with fidelity, perseverance and grace. Only secondarily, and only and ever in the service of carrying out that role, should he give a thought at all to “how Catholicism is seen,” or any other form of human respect.

    I just think speculation on this particular point is silly, and makes it look like you wish he would quit.

  6. Liam says:

    I agree on those points, and that reform of the culture of the Curia (as opposed to merely its structures) has been much promised over many pontificates and failed. That’s not to say that today’s Curial culture is unchanged from, say, that of Pius X’s era.

    There is, of course, a multi-cultural problem. Not just of understanding the institutional culture of something that goes back in institutional terms for many centuries. But the local Roman institutional culture, where certain things are more impersonal/indirect than in Anglospheric culture while other things are more personal/direct. Expecting a fusion that will merely cull the best of each is to not understand how human social organism work. On the other hand, that problem cannot be used simply to vaporize expectations so that conflict is avoided.

  7. Liam says:

    I should add, since I started drafting this before John’s comment intervened (and got distracted by a call) that I was addressing my agreement to Todd’s last comment.

  8. Todd says:

    Thanks for replying, John. I make it a point of praying for fruitfulness, especially given the spiritual reality God can work well through human weakness and failure.

    It may be right that speculation is premature or even silly, but I think the idea is now out there and will continue to color the thread of Vatican activities for the next several years.

    I may be less concerned about people thinking I think the pope should resign. I think he needs to clean house. That’s a more important matter than the particular person who sits in Peter’s chair. If I were hopeful any cardinal could clean up, then yes, I would await the change. But I have more than enough to do in the local church than abandon the temple and be a counter-Simon or counter-Anna.

    As for Liam’s perceptive comment about Roman culture, it may be that this is where Rome borrows a good idea, as they have done from others in the past.

  9. Rimshot says:

    I would be shocked if this is the beginning of the Pope’s “decline.” He’s a surprising fellow. He’s surprised us before. God grant him strength and many years.

  10. Jimmy Mac says:

    Maybe what he needs is a vice-pope (not Bertone!) to handle the house-cleaning, butt-kicking and all else that is necessary. B16 is an intellectual, not a leader from a practical standpoint.

    Things move way too quickly anymore to tolerate mistakes that constantly have to be explained, reinterpreted, etc.

  11. John Heavrin says:

    This might be a first, but I agree with you, Jimmy Mac.

    I nominate Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal?) Burke.

    Or maybe…Bishop Fellay? In due course, of course.

  12. Liam says:


    It would of course be Cdl Mahony.

  13. Todd says:

    I’d prefer Catherine of Siena. She leaned hard on Gregory XI in his day.

  14. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    I also doubt that Benedict XVI would ever consider resigning. And you can be sure whatever health issues he may have will be kept well under wraps until they can’t avoid talking about them.
    In the meantime I crossed paths with our local Bishop this morning. A Japanese, and until recently head of the Bishops Confrence here, he has been to Rome for an ‘ad limina’ and other urgent business since Benedict XVI was elected, so has first-hand experience of the Pope and his current Curia. He was equally at a loss as what the Pope was thinking when he made his recent decision re the SSPX, but saw it as one more example of a decision made without enough thought of its wider implications. If you elect a scholar who holds a minority position, a questioning position on the way Vatican II was interpreted under Paul VI, and had his differences with John Paul II on matters of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, among other topics, then you get a pontificate such as we are now experiencing. His agenda and the values he uses to make some decisions are obviously not always shared by those affected by them, indeed some of his star pupils i.e. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, are bemused or unhappy with them.
    While some have commended Benedict XVI for showing a pastoral touch, not so obvious during his time at the CDF, over here in Asia the feeling is we will have to wait for a change at the top before we get a Vatican open to the needs and aspirations of the wider, non-First World Church. None of the Asians appointed to senior Curial positions have much credibility in Asia, and those whose background and focus is Europe the global North have even less. When will we get a Pope and a Curia who see themselves as called to being open and responsive to a world church, obviously some years hence. Until then live in hope and prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  15. Tony says:

    As pope he is responsible for how Catholicism is seen in the world, and he is not infallible in the handling of his responsibility as a leader.

    As pope he is responsible as the pastor of the souls of the world. He’s not involved in a popularity contest, heaven knows among lib circles he was one of the most unpopular members of the Vatican before and during his papacy.

    He is responsible for teaching Christ’s truth clearly and unambiguously. World opinion should not enter into it, because we are called to live in the world and not be “of the world”.

    He has never been shy about his acceptance of a smaller and more faithful Church.

    The idea that he might resign is wishful thinking on the part of the libs. I don’t give it much credence.

  16. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Given the source of the speculation, a remark by a German priest working for Vatican Radio that was seemingly quoted out of context, to turn this into a discussion about ‘wishful thinking on the part of the libs’ seems to be stretching the debate into an unwarranted direction. Sorry Tony, but your remarks don’t really help advance this discussion.
    As the reactions voiced by many respected figures recorded in the “Whispers in the Loggia” blog show, Benedict XVI’s action on behalf of the SSPX ‘bishops’ has raised questions about his judgement and/or the quality of the advice he is receiving.
    This is not the first time remarks he has made in speeches or decisions he has made have had all sorts of people shaking their heads, including senior figures in various national hierarchies. One begins to wonder what to expect next. Early speculation that he had an unsuspected pastoral touch are increasingly being shown to be just that, hope filled speculation.
    Without going into details, there is an ongoing pastoral/administrative problem in a diocese here in Japan crying out for firm guidance from Rome that shows a responsivenes to the local situation. All the current active Bishops, including the ordinary of the diocese in question, supported a pastorally appropriate proposal Benedict XVI originally seemed to be willing to support. However, somedays after the leadership of the Bishops Conference had returned to Japan, they received a letter from a senior Curial Cardinal, who has never been to Japan, telling them the Pope wished a little more time to consider his decision. No indication was given as to why he wanted more time to consider his decision. It is, I should mention, a group that was highly regarded by John Paul II and some of his advisors who still hold senior positions in the Curia The bishops are still waiting, and the problem is still a source of concern in the diocese.
    Was the Pope given bad advice in some of the cases that have caused a negative reaction, or is he genuinely unaware of how serious the problems some of his speeches and actions have caused? His limited pastoral experience, his strongly academic, focus, and dependance on a limited circle of advisors, indicates a need for a change at least at the Curial level. Papal fallibility – an open question, Curial fallibility and incompetence seems to be the hard question we should be discussing. And lets not forget that Benedict XVI himself has confirmed in office, or appointed all of the present Curia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s