Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Forcing the Pope's hand

There is a lot of silly talk--much of it self-perpetuating--about the College of Cardinals arranging for the next pope to resign upon reaching a certain age. This is complete nonsense; neither the College of Cardinals nor any other power on earth has the slightest authority to require a papal resignation (see 1983 CIC 331, resting on divine authority stretching back to the Petrine Commission recounted in Matthew 16).

Pope John Paul II has considered resignation in the past, but the desire to set an example of spending one's last breath in service to the Church weighs heavily on him. So does, I suspect, his awareness that a papal resignation today might make more palatable the idea of another papal resignation tomorrow. Dangerous precedent, that, should the world face off against a pope who is not so widely loved. Is the Church paying a price by John Paul's retention of office? Perhaps so, but the Church would pay a price upon his resignation, and no one grieves more at his inability to serve better the Church we love than does Pope John Paul himself.

And yet, I think another consideration may be raised here: The sufferings of old age (for those blessed to attain it) are, of course, a frightful consequence of Original Sin. But, beyond the physical hardships they endure, the vast majority of elderly face their final years without even the small consolation of being able to say that they are still being useful to others. Retirement, whether chosen or forced, leaves one very alone, makes one realize that the world is going to continue anyway, and forces the frightful question, "What have I really done with my life, now that I can apparently add nothing to it?"

If Pope John Paul II does resign, his final pontifical act should not be seen as acquiescence to the inevitable, but rather as yet another instance wherein he has shown his solidarity with the most forgotten segments of society; this last time, it would be with the long-suffering but oh-so-helpless elderly. +++

Update, February 10: If there's a lot of silliness on the pro side of the papal resignation debate, there's at least a little on the anti side as well. One high-ranking prelate, for example, is quoted as saying that it would be wonderful if Pope John Paul II outlasted Pope Pius IX's 37-year reign. Oh, really? What would be so wonderful about that?

The papacy is about service (Servus Servorum Dei), not about moving up another notch in the Guinness Book of World Records. For John Paul II to outstay Pius IX would require another ten years in office. I don't see any inconsistency between wishing, Deo volente, John Paul another 10 years of life, and harboring concerns about the papacy--and the Church--being run under the present circumstances for another decade. Ironically, most of us on the anti-forced resignation side of this debate support what political scientists would call a strong monarchial model of the papacy, even while the position we defend is leading to a de facto oligarchial reality.

The ecclesiological quandaries of an incapacitated pope are very real (the press and bloggers have not even scratched the surface yet), and we are seeing them play out before our eyes. Canon Law simply doesn't cover this situation. But the Holy Spirit does, and I'm very sure that Pope John Paul II needs no advice, pro or con, from the rest of us as to how to discern the Spirit's will in this matter.