Pope Francis: The resignation scenario
I am currently reading a detective novel by David Hewson, A Season for the Dead, which touches in part on deep financial and sexual corruption within the Vatican. It was published in 2004 when the financial corruption was well-known though not, perhaps, the other. But the two often go hand in hand. If you don’t understand why I say that, consider that financial corruption fairly frequently involves carefully cultivated relationships, in which “favors” accompany private knowledge that others do not wish to have revealed.
I do not recommend Hewson’s novel for the faint of heart, though he is a good writer, and his hero, a police detective in Rome named Nic Costa, is a very likeable young man. I also find it enjoyable that Costa knows his way around Rome the way Donna Leon’s older and higher-ranking Guido Brunetti knows his way around Venice. But while Hewson, unlike Leon, has not included among his mysteries one which features a completely false and malicious understanding of Opus Dei (a sad blot on Leon’s usual human insight), Hewson’s plots are fairly dark. He knows nothing of what Agatha Christie fans might call “a good clean murder”. There is more gore and more human depravity than Hercule Poirot’s little gray cells can shake a stick at.
Nonetheless, Hewson’s portrayal of the deeply corrupt Cardinal Denney rings depressingly true and, as we now suspect, the corruption in the Vatican may run deeper still—or at least the unwillingness or inability to root it out appears to reach higher still. And this, inescapably, raises the question of another papal resignation.
Should Pope Francis leave office?
I receive emails on a daily basis insisting that Pope Francis should resign or be forced out. Yesterday, a statement from the Byzantine Catholic Patriarchate in the Czech Republic landed in my In Box. The BCP would like us to publish their statement announcing Pope Francis’ excommunication for a long list of crimes against the Church (which are mostly worst-case interpretations of things we have all at least wondered about). Don’t worry, though: This organization is totally bogus and my impeccable source for such things (Phil Lawler) notes that the BCP also excommunicated, in their day, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
But we do hear from a great many of our readers that Francis should be given the boot, and this raises some interesting questions.
First, of course, people are prone to forget that the Pope cannot be “booted out” by anyone. Only God Himself can pass judgment on a pope, and when God chooses to end a pontificate, while He may sometimes prompt a resignation, He mostly employs the ultimate solution. Whenever a living pope is effectively forced to leave office, and does not clearly do so voluntarily (even if under pressure), the condition of the Church deteriorates even more. Whoever takes his place under such circumstances is an anti-pope, and the Church almost inescapably falls into schism.
Most Catholics know this, so the option of voluntary resignation is more seriously advocated. Such an event could be properly induced in part through legitimate pressure (that is, urgent recommendation without threats of retribution or physical coercion), but a pope’s resignation must be freely offered to be valid. Moreover, for the good of the Church, this freedom must be manifested as clearly as possible, as it was in the case of Benedict XVI (which has not stopped conspiracy theorists from attempting to deny that resignation’s legitimacy).
Before we hope for this result, then, we must face at least three very serious considerations:
- Presumption: Pope Francis (foolishly, in my view) praised Benedict for his resignation and suggested that we had entered upon a time in Church history in which it would become normal for popes to resign. I understand the concern about excessive and debilitated longevity. But surely resignations should be very rare. God has his own infallible means of removing a pope from office. One who cannot make himself a pope should not be quick to unmake himself a pope. The default position, at least, ought to be in favor of leaving this in God’s hands.
- Presumption again: Surely it is presumptuous for any of us, including popes, to conclude that the Church will be better off under someone else’s leadership. Pope Benedict, I am convinced, made his own decision with greater openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit than most can muster. In the end, he chose to resign for the good of the Church, stating that he no longer had the strength to deal with the problems he saw. I am not arguing that he was wrong, but raise your hand if, in hindsight, you think that decision worked out well.
- And Presumption a third time: Again, in what possible universe could multiple “retired popes” be considered, in and of itself, a good thing? The very concept emphasizes what is human about the papacy, rather than what is rooted in the Divine constitution of the Church. For each resigned pope, while he is living, there will be reasons to prefer his continued pontificate; for each resigned pope, there will be theories that his successor’s election was illegitimate; for each resigned pope, the natural expectation will grow that the papal office ought to be: (a) Controlled by the papal handlers; or (b) Exercised by committee.
The phenomenon of musical chairs
But now the time has come not to speak of many things but of one thing, not of cabbages and kings but of rotten fruit. Consider that at least three successive popes now have known of the sex abuse crisis in the Church, including at least some knowledge of the extent of homosexual influence. This was known to be at work in the seminaries during the papal visitations beginning under John Paul II; it has been manifest in Catholic universities and in the teaching of moral theology for fifty years; its power within religious orders has been obvious in the Society of Jesus and elsewhere, also for decades; bishops have been quietly shuffling homosexually abusive priests around for a very long time; and curial tolerance (to use the minimum description) for homosexuality has been recognized at least from the time of accusations against the Legion of Christ, if not far earlier.
Indeed, we may assume that just as “everybody knew” about Cardinal McCarrick among Washington-area Church-watchers, so too have a great many Vatican-watchers known about this problem at the highest levels of Church leadership in Rome. Now it is at least possible that by the time Saint John Paul II (that Polish outsider) had figured out this was a serious problem, he was too far advanced in Parkinson’s Disease to deal with it. It is also possible to take Benedict at his word—that he found himself too debilitated by scholarly temperament, advancing age and decreasing energy to summon both the resolve and the administrative brilliance necessary to act effectively.
But look at what we are admitting even in the best-case scenario:
Three popes have now been expected to deal with this problem effectively, and three popes—doubtless for reasons both legitimate and illegitimate—have failed (as far as anyone can tell) to make significant progress.
My own theory is that the dominant sins of the culture are always reflected deeply in the Church, so that fighting today’s scourge is similar to fighting the material worldliness characteristic of Church leaders drawn from the nobility in, say, the year 1500. If so, this is a massive cultural battle involving an attitudinal sea change at every level of the Church and society. But what is important to the “resignation scenario” is not my particular theory. What is important, rather, is that we really are morally certain of three things:
- First, this problem is both very deep and even more interlocked with our social order as a whole than we yet realize.
- Second, we should consider it better—far better—for Pope Francis to open himself to the graces showered on him through the prayers of the faithful, and so to become as effective a reformer as he can possibly be, rather than to resign.
- And third, the faithful need to spend more time in prayer and sacrifice—which arises from absolute trust in God—than in advocacy for a papal resignation.
It is not healthy for us as members of the Church to be preoccupied with how we might somehow manage to create a new pope. This is because there is a huge difference between trusting in God and trying to force His hand. The main difference is that forcing God’s hand puts human wisdom in charge. Instead, we should know by now that human wisdom is not up to the task.
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