One of the great questions which seems to be permeating the Catholic blogosphere is whether Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement earlier this week will lead to a kind of unhealthy pressure on future popes to resign when they take decisions and public stances which are unpopular (as the Pope, as Vicar of Christ and Successor of Peter, he not only will do so but he must), or when the Pontiff’s health begins to decline. In his Crisis magazine blog, Father George Rutler stated plainly what the danger could be in the future if the average “Catholic On the Street” begins to see the holder of the Petrine Ministry in the same way the world might view “Dutch royalty.”
Christ gave the Keys to a Galilean fisherman with a limited life span. He chose Peter; Peter did not choose Him. When the pope relinquishes the Petrine authority, he does not submit a letter of resignation to any individual, for the only one capable of receiving it is Christ. This is why “renunciation” or “abdication” is a more accurate term than “resignation” in the case of the Supreme Pontiff. Unless this is understood, the danger is that a superficial world will try to refashion the pope into some kind of amiable but transient office holder. Popes are not Dutch royalty. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II has one tiara, not three, but the longer she wears it, the more she seems to grow in the affection of her people, which bond of respect is morally more powerful than any constitutional grant of rights and privileges. But the papacy’s authority is absolute and not gratuitous, and its exercise cannot be only conditional and validated by human approval. Pope Benedict pays tribute to that imperial obligation of his office by willing to relinquish it.
What Father Rutler is getting at is that the Holy Father almost certainly knew that some of us would question why he was doing this. We would think, as the Catholic writer Pat Archbold thought, that the next Pope needs to die as Pope and that something didn’t seem quite right about what has happened in the Church this week.
Benedict, however, has said that he has made his decision for the good of the Church. We often forget that he had a very up close and personal view of John Paul II’s suffering in advance of his own passing from this world, and he saw how ecclesiastical affairs took a backseat during that time to Blessed John Paul’s necessary and important long goodbye. He may believe that he’ll be spending too much time worrying about his illnesses as pope and not enough time being the Holy Father.
It is legitimate to be concerned that the Petrine Ministry might be prone to frequent renunciations, but a big part of the Catholic faith is that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and will protect the deposit of faith. It is the duty of the Church to proclaim that faith in season and out of season. Hence, whether a Pope dies in office (as is the norm) or whether he abdicates, he does not govern based on human approval, but based on the Gospel and the good of the Church. As Benedict has done this, so will his successor.