Can the Pope really resign?

I remember sitting at the top of the stairs at Edith and Wilbur’s house. Their television sat in the front room at just the right angle for me to see the screen from my “you kids go upstairs now” perch. President Nixon was giving his resignation speech. In my six-year-old mind I thought that if the President was quitting then America must be over. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew enough to know that it meant something.

Resignations mean something. And although Nixon’s resignation did not mean what I imagined at the time, it meant something. So does the resignation of the Pope.

coronation of pope

Approximately 1.2 billion people around the world consider the Pope to speak for and represent God in ways that no one else does. So, what does it mean for a person to abdicate that role? Is it even really possible to divest oneself of such an identity?

The most recent precedent is some 598 years old. In those days there were rival popes. Or more accurately, a┬áPope (Gregory XII) and those that were considered anti-popes (Benedict XIII and John XXIII), but they reigned and ruled simultaneously over different groups of Roman Catholic cardinals in Rome, Avingnon and Pisan. The resignation of Gregory XII ended the great schism in 1415 and the papacy was consolidated in Rome. So, Gregory’s resignation meant something. It produced the way for a broken church to be re-unified for a time.

However, if you read the secular press coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, you hear purely humanistic reasons given as justification for his stepping down. The responsibilities of the job and physical fatigue are legitimate reasons for many, but for the Roman Pontiff who is, according to Catholic theology, literally and physically the bridge between the Church and Her God? How is anyone in a position to “quit” such a job?

Therein lies the rub for me. I’m not Catholic, but I do share a baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I do rely on the same Savior, Jesus Christ. And I do offer myself in the same spirit of living sacrifice articulated in Romans 12:1-2. Which is where I find my brow furrowed over the Pope’s resignation. To me this is a calling in which you die trying. You do not give up short of God’s ordained finish line for this life. You run until you break the tape and you collapse into His grace, as a saint.

I certainly understand the humanistic desire to see a younger person take over the reigns and advance the institution to greater effectiveness. But as justification for this particular resignation that’s at best naturalistic humanism and at worst its atheism. To be clear, I am not calling the Pope an atheist. But when we say that we’re too weak or too tired or too old or too dull or too whatever to live obediently into the calling to which we have been called, we are saying that God is not big enough or not powerful enough or not God enough to do in and through us what we cannot.

As an exercise here, check the ages of Abraham and Noah and Moses and Zechariah and Elizabeth when you doubt what God can do with an octogenarian.

Sadly, the process of vetting potential replacements for the Pope looks to be equally humanistic. What would be best for the church? Which part of the world deserves representation? Who will bring continuity?

I’m for whatever Cardinals are asking on their knees and in the quiet of their prayer closets “Who is God’s man? Who has God ordained to lead the Roman Catholic Church for such a time as this?”

May God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven in this most important transition in the life of the larger Church.


Comments 6

  • Can the Pope resign/retire? Yes. Pastors do it all the time. In the Presbyterian tradition, ordination is for life, but you don’t necessarily hold the office for life. 2 Tim 2:2 comes into play a little here, in that the pastor/elder/minister/priest is concerned about training others to carry on afterwards when he is unable to carry on. While I recognize the point of the humanistic issues here, but we are talking about humans undertaking these tasks too.

    On comment for Frank. The original Westminster Confession does say what he says it says, but the newer versions held by the EPC, PCUSA, and I think even the PCA’s version, do not speak so harshly about the Pope being the antiChrist. Even if it did, the reformers viewed the Catholic Church as the church, with valid baptism, and their initial desire was reformation, not destruction. The appropriate understanding is not to wish their destruction, but to pray for their repentance. We protestants, and especially reformed evangelical protestants, tend to treat the Catholics as a 16th century organization, but the Catholic Church has changed and is not a monolithic organization. Many are distancing themselves from Trent, and as protestants, we should allow them to do that. This isn’t to say that there aren’t serious issues with Catholic doctrine, but our response needs to be different than anger and 16th century polemics. Our response needs to be centered on the gospel. Yes, as much as the Pope stands against the Biblical Gospel, he is anit-Christ, but I don’t think saying he is The Anti-Christ is helpful nor proper in light of the Scriptures. Their biggest problem is the Doctrine of the Church, and every doctrine that touches that. I think J.I. Packer said that, and I think he is right. Bottom line, we should welcome dialogue and even fellowship with those in the Roman Catholic church who are growing in their understanding of Biblical soteriology, and allow the process of repentance to move where it is happening, and understand that there are places in the Catholic church that are either more pagan, or more like the traditional Catholic church with their errors. May the next Pope be more receptive to Biblical Soteriology. As it is, there are big enough problems with Scriptural understandings in the Presbyterian denominations, and the PCUSA in particular, which is where many of us are.

  • Interesting post, Carmen. Of course, the tradition of past popes has been to serve until death. But my guess is that Joseph Ratzinger will continue to serve God and the Church with his intellectual rigor, if not his physical strength, perhaps through writing, until his moment comes. This is just as an honorably retired Presbyterian minister or stated clerk might do. Why should we expect active leadership in the church, at any level, to be a death sentence? Benedict may actually serve the Church longer than he might have, by stepping down.

    Your post is ironic in one way, and perhaps that’s the way you meant it. Since you don’t acknowledge Pope Benedict’s authority as Vicar of Christ on Earth anyway, why are you on his case about how he perceives and executes his duty? As somebody once said in another context, “If you don’t play the game, you don’t make the rules.”

    Tom Johnson
    Lincoln, Nebraska

  • Carmen,

    If you do not believe one should give up their ordained calling, “To me this is a calling in which you die trying,” then why did you set aside your ordination in the PCUSA? If the Pope can’t quit, then why did you?
    That said, after reading Mr. Frank Smith’s acrimonious response toward the Roman Catholic Church, I find myself far closer to your view than his.

    • John, thank you for inviting this conversation. I do not put ordination to a specific office of ministry in one branch of the very diverse Christian Church on par with the office of Roman Catholic Pope. What I was trying to get at was a theological question: if the Pope is who the Roman Catholics claim he is, then how can he divest himself of that identity?

      • Carmen,
        Yes, I understand your question to be, “Can someone selected/elected to walk in “the Shoes of the Fisherman” take off those shoes? Since even in Roman Catholic theology, the Pope is human and not divine, I think the answer is “yes.” He is not renouncing faith, or his ordination, instead, I think he is aware of his human limitations. His doing so may also signal a change in that regard. Popes must be able to be active, thoughtful, and capable of leading. If a Pope developed Alzheimer’s would he still be able to be Pope, or would it result in a crisis where the Cardinals had to step in and remove him? So, is his resignation humanistic, or humanitarian, or is there even the possibilty his resignation is for the glory of God?

  • Dear Editor:

    Of course, the historic creeds of the Reformation recognize that the Pope is “that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.6). Yes, we should pray for God’s will to be done. In this case, that means praying for the destruction of the Roman church, as an institution that promotes “manifold superstitutions” and “gross idolatries” (ibid., XXIX.6); that has been guilty (and unrepentantly so) of persecuting the saints; and whose doctrines, including the denial of justification by faith alone, lead countless multitudes to hell.

    For Christ’s crown and covenant,
    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    Editor, Presbyterian International News Service, Cumming, Georgia
    President, Young American Leaders Association Missionary Training School, Los Angeles, California
    Instructor of Biblical Studies, Belhaven University–Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
    Pastor, Northminster Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), Suwanee, Georgia

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