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When a pope resigns

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There is so much being written about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The most basic question asked is whether a pope may resign. There is now no dispute about the legal possibility of a resignation. Canon Law is very clear:  “If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required that he make his resignation freely, and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.”

Historically, the clearest example of papal resignation was that of Celestine V in 1294 after being pope for only five months. That was more than 700 years ago. Other examples are still debated on by scholars because of the facts’ lack of clarity.

There is no question about the due manifestation of the resignation of Pope Benedict. Essentially, the manifestation requirement means that the resignation must be communicated to the cardinals. But Pope Benedict did more than that. His manifestation was all over media, and the entire world immediately learned about it.

As to the freedom of his act, the imaginative allegations, spread around by rumormongers, about pressure having pushed him to resignation are largely being ignored. In fact there is near universal praise for his action. As one prominent theologian wrote, “There is potentially great significance in Benedict’s action, and it may be that his resignation will be his greatest contribution to ecclesiology. He has so subordinated his person to the office that he could renounce it. His frank admission that he no longer had the strength of mind and body needed for the Petrine ministry not only humanizes the pope himself but helps bring the papacy back within the church, down from what Hans Urs von Balthasar called its ‘pyramid-like isolation’.”

And as another writer put it: “Pope Benedict spoke from his heart on Feb. 11. The statement was characteristically humble. The pope is naturally introverted; the shoes of the fisherman have not always fit him comfortably. To be sure, he suffers in comparison to his charismatic predecessor. But there is something more: Five years old when the Nazis came to power in his native Germany, the pope witnessed first hand the destructive power of a cult of personality. One can easily see why, given this experience, the pope can become visibly uncomfortable when the crowds chant his name.”

But the wisdom of a pope’s resignation has been a matter of debate and it must have been an excruciating decision for Benedict XVI to resign. There was the view, for instance, that because of the “mystique of the papacy that so identified the pope with Christ,” to resign would mean to betray Christ. It is reported that Paul VI would not think of  resigning because “he cannot come down from his cross.”

But another theologian makes this observation: “Benedict’s action also suggests the thought that if a pope can resign for reasons of health or of age, he might resign for other reasons too. There could come a pope who agrees with what John Henry Newman wrote in 1870, during the longest pontificate in church history: ‘It is not good for a pope to live 20 years. It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, does cruel things without meaning it.’ In other words, even though no term limits may be assigned to the papal office, a pope can have his own term limits in mind, and say to himself, and to the church, ‘Basta!’ If papal resignations were to become something normal (that is, more frequent than every 700 years), then there might be less reluctance to elect someone younger and still energetic without worrying that he will fall victim to the tendency Newman feared.”

Incidentally, the Society of Jesus has had to deal with the resignation of its highest ranking superior. The superior general of the order, like the pope, has no term limit, but the law of the society has provisions on how to handle a general’s resignation. When Father General Pedro Arrupe wanted to resign for reasons of failing health, he acceded to the wish of the pope that he stay in office. But on his return trip from his visit to Asia, he was stricken by a completely disabling stroke.  Hence, the society elected a new superior general, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, whose resignation, after 25 years in office, was consented to by Pope Benedict XVI.

As for the pope, he needs nobody’s approval for his resignation to be effective. Nor can anybody stop him. As announced by him, his resignation took effect last Feb. 28.

Now that Benedict XVI has resigned, what is he? We must distinguish between what belongs to him as a person and what belonged to him as pope. He remains a bishop and cardinal but he no longer has the primacy powers of the bishop of Rome, such as being the “vicar of Peter, head of the college of bishops, patriarch of the West, primate (chief bishop) of the bishops of Italy, metropolitan of the dioceses surrounding Rome or head of Vatican City State.”

Until the college of cardinals elect his successor (within the month), we have no pope. Meanwhile, who manages the house?

The law on what happens during the interregnum is all provided for in the rules established in the 1996 constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis” (“Of the Lord’s Whole Flock”) of John Paul II, as modified by Benedict in 2007. I don’t suppose we should expect an internecine war in the Vatican.

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