Pope Benedict’s resignation, effective February 28, is not precedent setting. It has been done before.
However, the question remains: What does it mean for the Church as an institution?
Now that a pope has resigned, the possibility of a papal resignation is much more present than it was before. By doing it, the Holy Father has made it possible for all of us to consider that his heirs on the throne of Peter might do it also.
It is no longer unthinkable that a pope would resign his office.
I am from a political background, so I tend to look at things like this at least partly in terms of a transference of power. In my experience, power, wherever you find it, always attracts careerists who will shove, bully and manipulate to gain that power. The thought that came to my mind almost immediately after I heard of the pope’s resignation was, Will this lead to people hectoring and manipulating in an attempt to force popes to resign in the future?
Modern medicine gives more people the opportunity to live into a frail old age than ever before. This applies to popes as well as you and me. For any man to be elected pope, he must have lived long enough to have the experience and holiness the position requires. It takes years of walking with the Lord to become holy in the sense that a leader of His Church must be holy. Peter himself was a brash young man who had a lot of learn at the beginning.
Yet, in time, everyone ages. So electing younger popes would only delay the questions I’m raising. It would not avoid them.
One possible way to avoid future popes being pressured to resign would be to do away with the possibility of resignation. Pope Benedict’s resignation was conducted by Canon Law, not dogmatic Church teaching. So, the ability of a pope to resign can be eliminated altogether, making the Papacy a lifelong sinecure with no off ramps.
Another way to do this would be to establish a retirement age for popes. I think it would have to be rather elderly, given that our previous popes have done some of their most marvelous work when they were well past 75.
These thoughts are just me, mentally noodling with the situation. They are thinking thinking, not suggestions, or even formed opinions. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about it. Our pope has resigned. What does that mean to the Church in these perilous times?
There will be a new pope and he will lead us without departing from the Gospels of Christ. I do not doubt that.
But all human beings are frail and fallen. It is inevitable that this new pope — and all those who follow him — will be subject to the increasing viciousness of a world that is moving from moral nihilism to moral self-destruction. The pope, as the leader of the Catholic Church, must stand against the gates of hell.
I am praying for this unknown man as he goes about his days, almost certainly unaware of what awaits him in March. I am also grateful to the core for the steady and unyielding leadership Pope Benedict XVI has given us.
May his tribe increase.