Should Pope Francis resign? I say No... but...

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 17, 2018

Should Pope Francis resign? Like my colleague Jeff Mirus, I say No.

Since I have often been critical of the Pope—not least in my book Lost Shepherd—I’m sure many readers will be surprised by my answer. Let me explain my reasoning.

  • If public pressure forces Pope Francis to resign, a dangerous precedent will be set. His successor will hear calls for his resignation, from the first moment he makes a decision or a public statement that offends… anyone. The Church will be battered by politicized campaigns for all sorts of different causes—some of them completely irrelevant to the Catholic faith—with the mass media gleefully joining in the effort to undermine papal authority.
  • If Pope Francis resigns while Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI is still alive, the Catholic world will have two retired Pontiffs. Benedict has scrupulously avoided making public statements that could raise questions about his successor’s policies. Nevertheless there are dozens of journalists trying to portray the current crisis in the Church as a struggle between the two Pontiffs and their respective supporters. Imagine the mischief that might be created by proxy fights, real or imagined, between two former Popes—one of them with a track record of intemperate public statements—and the reigning Pontiff.
  • Some proponents of papal resignation have offered the argument that if he does not step down, Pope Francis will find his leadership severely compromised because of public distrust. I’m sorry, but I find that argument unconvincing. If the Pope is promoting policies that are dangerous to the faith, it might be a very good thing if his leadership is weakened and he is unable to carry out those policies.
  • Does anyone actually expect Pope Francis to step down in answer to a public outcry? Is there anything in his behavior to date, anything in the way he has responded to criticism, that would suggest he is likely to step down? To me, that prospect seems vanishingly unlikely. (Here I am speaking of a resignation prompted by protests; it is still possible, I suppose, that eventually the Pope will decide to resign because of failing health.) If another papal resignation is unlikely—and it is, paradoxically, for reasons closely akin to the reasons that have prompted the calls for that resignation—then all the energies currently devoted to campaigns for a papal resignation are being wasted. In fact, the editorials and petitions are more likely to strengthen the Pope’s resolve, to make him even more implacable in rejecting criticism, more determined to ignore those who disagree with his statements and policies.
  • And is it healthy for Catholics (let alone non-Catholics) to lobby for the removal of a Pope? Shouldn’t an authentically Catholic instinct prod us constantly to pray for the Pope? We might pray that he changes his mind, changes his policies, changes his approach. We might pray for his conversion. Still, though we disagree with him, we are praying for him—for his spiritual welfare and that of the Church.

For myself, I don’t want Pope Francis to resign. I want him to reform, and I pray daily for that intention.

There are precedents. Pope Pius IX shifted course fairly dramatically during his long 19th-century pontificate, prompted by the pressure of political trends in Italy. Pope Paul III had his moral flaws (to which his several children bore witness), but the rise of Protestant power persuaded him to convene the Council of Trent. So I have reason to hope that Pope Francis, who ascended the Chair of Peter calling for an end to the “self-referential” Church, might yet lead a powerful movement to evangelize the 21st-century world. Would it not be obviously better for the Church if Pope Francis, rather than shuffling off into a sullen retirement, experienced a conversion and led the faithful in a restoration of our Catholic patrimony? As my friend Father Raymond De Souza recently observed, “The path of confession and contrition is open to the Holy Father and all involved—a far better path than recrimination and resignation.”

However I must disagree with Father De Souza’s suggestion, in that same article, that “It’s time to turn down the temperature.” On the contrary, I would argue that loyal Catholics must maintain the temperature, keep up the pressure, insist on the need for a change in direction at the Vatican. We owe the Pope our prayerful support. We also owe him our pleas for relief.

Our Church is in the midst of a profound historic crisis, at serious risk of splitting apart. The Vicar of Christ, the Roman Pontiff, is—or should be—the focus of unity in the Church. At a time of grave disunity, we need a Pope who will repair the damage—not add to it.

As I see it, the role of the loyal Catholic layman is to remind the Pope—every day, if possible—wherein his duty lies. And then to pray—every day is possible—that he does it.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: MWCooney - Sep. 19, 2018 1:45 PM ET USA

    Once again you have nailed it! I pray daily for the conversion of Pope Francis, asking that he conform to the will of God to such an extent that he will later merit the title of Pope Francis the Great. Anything is possible with God, but I state again what I have said before: the most difficult thing is to truly embrace the essential prayer, "Not my will, but Thine be done."

  • Posted by: ILM - Sep. 18, 2018 4:05 PM ET USA

    We are where we are because Catholic Moral Doctrines have not been taught with conviction since the 1960’s. The solution is a totally faithful pope who sweeps house from top down.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Sep. 18, 2018 2:44 PM ET USA

    I agree with your analysis. Hopefully, Pope Francis will reverse course, but I think it will take a miracle. He has surrounded himself with modernists, and they will do their best to make sure he does not reverse course. Nevertheless, nothing is impossible to God.

  • Posted by: Cory - Sep. 18, 2018 4:49 AM ET USA

    Your articles are always so clear and to the point. Yes, we owe him our pleas for relief. We must demand it.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Sep. 18, 2018 4:01 AM ET USA

    The Church had survived worse: After deposing Antipope John XXIII in 1415, the Council of Constance was long divided by the conflicting claims of Pope Gregory XII (1406–15) and Antipope Benedict XIII (1394–1423). Martin was elected pope, at the age of 48, at the Council of Constance on St. Martin's Day, 11 November 1417.[5] Participants in the conclave included 23 cardinals and 30 delegates of the council. He was ordained a priest on November 13, 1417, and consecrated bishop the next day.

  • Posted by: jan02 - Sep. 18, 2018 1:00 AM ET USA

    "Shouldn’t an authentically Catholic instinct prod us constantly to pray for the Pope? We might pray that he changes his mind, changes his policies, changes his approach. We might pray for his conversion. Still, though we disagree with him, we are praying for him—for his spiritual welfare and that of the Church." Amen. I also worry about who his Cardinal appointees would vote for in the next enclave if he resigns. Far better for his conversion, repentance and renewal, just like for all of us.