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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 Pope (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.

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Carmen Fowler LaBerge