A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Pope Benedict’s Resignation Raises Questions

by Fr John Murphy sm

by Fr John Murphy sm

Fr John Murphy is a Marist priest working in digital media at the Marist Internet Ministry, New Zealand.This article was first published in CathNews NZ Pacific -- www.cathnews.co.nz -- a free twice-weekly email publication

Just as Joseph Ratzinger’s election was a surprise to some, the way he leaves the papacy surely surprises us all.

For although the word from Rome was Benedict was working less and his minders working overtime, I would have been less surprised to wake and learn that Pope Benedict had sadly passed away.

For people of faith, Benedict’s ‘right out of left field’ resignation is almost one of those ‘do you remember where you were when...’ moments.

With no disrespect intended, I’ve always said that being elected pope is effectively a death sentence because up until now, our living memory is death is the only way to stop being pope. As one person said to me on the phone today, “popes die, they just don’t stop being pope.”

So as Pope Benedict is about to emphasise the ‘ex’ in his Twitter handle @pontifex, and whether you like Pope Benedict or not, whether you see his resignation as forthright and visionary, or merely not being well enough to continue to deal with a litany of Vatican scandals, or a mixture of both, his unprecedented modern-day resignation brings a number of questions to the fore.

Among the many questions around is: should there be a compulsory retirement age for all future popes?Benedict3

Bishops are required by Canon Law to submit their resignation once they turn 75. Cardinals can only elect a pope until they reach the age of 80. We all witnessed the fragility and intense suffering of Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, so why is there no age or health restriction placed on the pope?

If there’s not going to be a compulsory papal retirement age, is Pope Benedict’s move setting a precedent for future popes? Will there be moral or even media pressure on his successors to retire?

Has Benedict changed the papacy for ever and turned it into a job a bit like anyone else’s, that there comes a time when you retire?

Unlikely I know, but I wonder if in making his decision Benedict considered the possibility of having more than one retired pope? Let’s face it with life expectancy like it is and the ready availability of good medical care, it’s not a total impossibility. So just how many former popes can the Church accommodate?

On a more likely note, when a pope dies the Church goes through a process to elect another. It is as though the College of Cardinals has an opportunity to start afresh. To as it were, evaluate the previous pope’s performance and to either collectively, in small groups or on their own discern the future direction of the Church.

Of course what’s different this time is that previous pope is still around, living inside the Vatican, and Benedict, a not insignificant figure, may not say much, probably won’t have to, but we, the cardinals and eventually the new pope know he’s there.

The question of the future direction of the Church also raises the topic of who will lead the Catholic Church into the future?

Has the legacy of John Paul II, reinforced by Benedict XVI, of appointing what some see as a particular type of person to the College of Cardinals ensured the continuation of their legacies, or is there still room, as others might say, for the Holy Spirit to move, and for there to be some change at the top?


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