Monday, February 25, 2013

Has the papacy become “just a job”?

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve had quite a bit of silliness inflicted on us by the incessant noisemakers well described as “the chattering classes” concerning Pope Benedict’s decision to step down from the papacy.  Yes, I know I belong to that group, and that I’m fully capable of saying silly things too; witness my arrogant confidence that Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama.

All papal reigns at their start are fraught with promise, and have potential for dramatic acts.  The cardinal electors can’t elect a “caretaker pope” without the possibility that said pope, theoretically picked to keep the Chair of Peter warm for a better successor, will suddenly take it into his head to do something climactic … like call an ecumenical council.  And even a pope widely regarded as an empty cassock (e.g. Ven. Paul VI) can drop an atomic bomb on everyone’s expectations (the prophetic Humanae Vitae).  In this respect, the upcoming conclave is no different from previous conclaves, even with the off-stage presence of a Bishop Emeritus of Rome. 

Those hoping, advising and demanding that the Church change its moral teachings, as I’ve written elsewhere, will most likely grumble of the next pope, in the words of Pete Townsend, “Meet the new boss /Same as the old boss.”  But more irritating than those who expect some kind of dogmatic dive to the left are those who claim that B16’s resignation introduces a fundamental change to the Petrine office, that it either makes or proves the papacy “just another job”.  “And by so doing,” Giles Fraser of the Guardian, who styles himself a “Catholic Protestant”, exults, “it rightly challenges some of the cult of personality that has built up around that office, as if the job affords the office holder some special proximity to God.  It doesn’t.”


… Catholicism is bigger than the job description of a bishop of an Italian city.  To be a Catholic is to regard oneself a part of the universal church, one the stretches back in time, yes, but one also that spreads out over the four corners of the earth.
Catholic Protestants, like me, believe in a form of Christianity with a far greater degree of institutional subsidiarity, a religion that is not just top down and doctrinally authoritarian.  I guess that is why, at a certain level, we take a certain pride in our theological squabbling, however unedifying that may be at times.  Politically, we are natural democrats.  And democracy is messy, without the dangerous glamour of any cult of the strong leader.

Whether or not you believe in an ecclesial democracy — and, having witnessed the doctrinal fragmentation of communions who do, it’s hard to see why one would — Fraser is uncommonly shy about telling us how Papa Bene’s resignation changes the papacy, or why we should suddenly abandon all pretense of a special Petrine charism simply because B16 won’t die in office like most of the previous 264.  “The cult of the strong leader” may suffice for those who hang on to late eighteenth/early nineteenth speculative anthropology.  However, it’s bad history and bad theology, not to mention a total misread of Joe Catholic in the pews.

This idea of a “papal mystique”, if you will, also gives rise to the Catholic fear:  If popes are allowed to resign, then they can be forced to resign — dare we say, “deposed”?  And if popes can be forced out of office, then what happens to the Petrine charism?  Why, any number of horrors may follow when the Pope can be forced out of office by an antagonistic cabal!

First, other popes in history have been deposed.  In fact, one particularly villainous character, Benedict IX, was first bribed to resign (1044), then came back into power and was deposed two more times (1045-1046, 1047-48).  Other popes have been murdered, and I’m not thinking of the early martyr popes.  If abdication or deposal dispels the Petrine charism, then that went away when St. Pontian, sentenced to die a slave in the mines of Sardinia, willingly gave up his office in 235, or in 654 when St. Eugene I was elected after St. Martin I was abducted.  If, however, neither event undid the charism, then neither will B16.

Which brings up my second point: The Petrine charism belongs to the office, not to the man who holds it. Popes receive no additional consecration beyond the one they receive when elevated to the episcopate. When bishops are transferred or resign, the authority attached to the office they leave ends; as an example, Cdl. Tim Dolan of New York was previously Archbishop of Milwaukee, but that prior occupation gives him no power or right to interfere with Abp. Jerome Listecki’s administration.

Father Raymond de Souza makes an excellent additional point by referring us to Christus Dominus 21: “Since the pastoral office of bishops is so important and weighty, diocesan bishops and others regarded in law as their equals, who have become less capable of fulfilling their duties properly because of the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason, are earnestly requested to offer their resignation from office either at their own initiative or upon the invitation of the competent authority” [bold font mine.—TL].

In other words, it’s precisely because the role of successor to the apostles is not “just a job” — some relatively unskilled and unimportant task any man could carry out with nominal competence — that a bishop needs to be in reasonably good health, of sound mind, and not impeded by any temporal concern which restricts his ability to exercise his spiritual authority.  If this is imperative of local bishops, how much more is it needed of the Bishop of Rome!  Blessed John Paul II oversaw the 1983 revision of canon law which saw the provision for papal resignation, canon 332 §2, inserted.  While he obviously saw a need to carry out the office despite his progressive physical decline, we can infer that he saw it as a personal obligation and not one inherent in the office.

One final consideration: Once you subtract the popes who resigned, who abdicated, who were deposed, martyred or murdered, you leave a lot of popes who hung on to the Chair for life because it was a source of wealth and temporal power, or because they were carried off by disease or virus with little opportunity to resign.  Had there been fewer material rewards and better healthcare for the popes over the centuries, we might very well have seen more resignations in Church history.  In this respect, Benedict’s resignation is definitely unprecedented, but in line with the abandonment of the triple crown and the sedia gestatoria.

When Jesus the Good Shepherd passed care of his flock to St. Peter with the words, “Tend my sheep” (Jn 21:16), he predicted the Rock’s martyrdom to remind him that the shepherd isn’t free to abandon his flock when the wolves come to prey.  But there’s another way to die for the sake of the faithful, and that’s to step aside when someone else can tend the sheep better.

Because the papacy isn’t just a job — it’s the Vicariate of Christ, the Servant of the Servants of God.