Sunday, February 8, 2009

On the Thinkability of Papal Resignations

Interesting comments circulating on a number of blogs re: the “thinkability” of a pope—Benedict XVI, in particular—resigning. These are responding to some recent media asides suggesting that the reaction to Benedict’s rehabilitation of SSPX might be getting so hot that the pope could even consider resigning ( and and

Of course, these are purely speculative comments, and don’t reflect any inside information from the Vatican—certainly not any signals from Benedict that he is considering resigning. I would be extremely surprised if he ever uttered a single rumination about needing to resign. This is not his style. Autocratic regimes retrench more adamantly in the face of criticism or opposition, and seek enemies (e.g., lesbians) on which to pin their problems, rather than admitting their mistakes.

What interests me more than the question of whether Benedict will or should resign is the reaction of some centrist Catholic thinkers to these media balloons. Some commentators are stating that the very thought of Benedict resigning is horrifying, that popes don’t and can’t resign. They’re holy fathers, after all. And who is better equipped than Benedict to be pope at this point in history?

I’m shocked at the shock, frankly. On what basis does one assume that a pope cannot resign—or should not—resign? I know of no theological precepts that forbid a papal resignation. I know of no doctrinal or theological tenets that forbid me to ask critical questions about how a pope exercises his (or her) office, or that call on me to defend the papacy blindly against valid criticism. I can, in fact, think of quite a few theological reasons that the church might, at some points in its history, think about the possibility of a papal resignation.

The Petrine ministry is about service—in particular, about service to the church’s unity. It seems to me entirely possible for the church to think seriously about calling on a particular pope to resign when he (or she) is exercising the Petrine ministry in a way that divides, rather than unites, the church. Or if he or she is engaged in acts, in the name of the Petrine ministry, that lord it over the Christian community, rather than serving the community.

Why is it unthinkable for the church to ask honest questions about whether a particular pope is serving the church and its unity well? Is it disloyal or unCatholic, on the face of it, to ask such questions? Or is it precisely the opposite: it seems to me that a love for the church would compel us to ask such question forthrightly if there are strong indicators that a papacy’s actions are dividing rather than uniting the church, tearing the flock apart rather than bringing it together.

These are theoretical theological observations. They’re simply a brief attempt to defend what seems to me hardly to need defense at all: the right (and obligation) of the people of God to call on the papacy to exercise its ministry in fidelity to the Petrine calling, and not in a way that betrays that calling. This brief theological ground-laying is distinct from the question of whether a particular pope should resign, and about how that sensus fidelium might appropriately be conveyed to the papacy.

More to the point in the discussion of these issues on several blogs recently is, it seems to me, the question of whether this particular pope’s exercise of the Petrine ministry is serving the church’s unity well (and is about service first and foremost). There, I think it is also entirely possible for the people of God to express strong reservations when they seem warranted, without having to defend our right to do so.

I’ve followed the career of the current pope for years now. I’ve had to do so, as a theologian. We theologians have been in his sights from the moment he first arrived in the Vatican as head of the CDF. We have watched as one theologian after another has been hounded, told to stop writing, ordered to stop teaching. We've watched, powerless, as theologians who were censured were afforded no rights at all in the interrogation process by which their ministry in the church was destroyed.

We’ve watched the current Holy Father, in his years at the helm of the Holy Office, deliberately create a chill that has shut down theological discussion, ecumenical dialogue, lay enthusiasm and lay involvement in ministry. We have watched, feeling powerless, as Ratzinger and John Paul II, who appointed Ratzinger to his high office and groomed him for the papacy, assaulted Vatican II and began dismantling it.

Those of us sympathetic to liberation theology watched that movement destroyed—with cold calculation, it seemed to many of us, and with a cynical willingness of the Vatican to shore up some of the worst oppressive regimes in Latin America as it assaulted liberation theologians. We have stood watching and without much power to change anything as women have been told that their natural and God-given place in church and society is to be helpmeets and servants of men.

We have stood watching as John Paul II and Ratzinger informed women and theologians that the very question of women’s ordination might not be discussed in the church: Roma locuta, causa finita. For those of us who are gay and/or who believe that gay persons have a place in God’s created world and in the church, it has been extraordinarily painful to watch the punishments and banishments—of Jeannine Gramick and Bob Nugent, of John McNeil, of one theologian or minister to the gay community after another. We listened with intense pain as the current pope issued his infamous Hallowe’en letter in 1986, inventing the discourse of intrinsic disorder to marginalize gay human beings across the globe, and to justify both discrimination and violence against us.

For many lay Catholics, the discovery of the extent of clerical sexual abuse of minors in our church—and, even worse, the discovery that this has been covered over from the very center of the church, from the Vatican itself—has been a horrifying kairotic moment about the extent to which the structures of the church can be corrupt and can facilitate evil rather than salvation. We have watched, stomach churning with disbelief, as victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests have been bullied by the church, as bishops have refused even to meet face to face with those victims, as our donations to the church have been used to cover up this foulness and to revictimize victims.

For those of us who are theologians, then, as well as for many lay Catholics, the question of whether this papacy can be criticized, or might not be serving the unity of the church, seems exceedingly odd. If we had been permitted to speak for some time now, I daresay many of us would have made countless criticisms of how the Petrine ministry has been exercised under John Paul II and how it is now being exercised by the man who was the architect of John Paul II’s restorationist movement, Benedict XVI.

Is Benedict serving the church and its unity well? In my considered judgment as a theologian, but most of all as a member of the body of Christ, the answer to that question is painfully obvious: no. Benedict has, in my view, inflicted considerable damage on the body of Christ, first as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as pope. And that damage is deepening as he continues in the papal office.

Even his recent decision to “unite” the church by bringing the schismatic SSPX group back into the church divides under the pretense of uniting. As my postings on the topic of Benedict’s smaller, purer church have repeatedly stated, the decision to readmit an outspoken anti-Semite who has also made gross remarks about women and gay persons only underscores, for many of us, our exclusion from the Christian community. It underscores an ugly message the church seems to be giving the world and many of its believers at present: an open anti-Semite is more welcome in the church than are many Catholics whose consciences have caused them to raise valid critical questions.

Which leaves me, as I have noted repeatedly on this blog, wondering what is going on with my centrist brothers and sisters, with those American Catholic theologians of the center who think the current pope is the best possible choice for the church at present, and that his resignation is unthinkable. What do these brothers and sisters think they are saying to millions of their brothers and sisters, to millions of alienated Catholics, when they make these claims?

Do they think we deserve the position in which we find ourselves? That we have worked to place ourselves in the outer darkness? That we have obstinately chosen our exclusion and alienation? Do they truly think that Benedict is serving the unity of the church by continuing our exclusion, by pretending that we deserve our excommunication?

If they do think this, then how do they imagine that they can go on talking about catholicity with any persuasiveness, as they simply ignore millions of disaffected brothers and sisters? For me, this is the nagging question that won’t go away—I suppose, because I can’t go away. Because I believe in God, I have an obligation to look at my life and see how and where to find divine meaning in my life—even, or particularly, when those who claim to speak in God's name tell me that my life and its experiences are worthless.

Unlike those at the center who have such comfortable positions and such a cozy sense of belonging, many of us shoved to the margins have to go on coping with our sense of exclusion and with our experience of being told we don’t belong—with being told that by the very persons who claim to be interested in the unity of the church. It baffles me that those at the center can’t or won’t see this—the reality of the human lives and human faces they seem perfectly willing to write out of the church and out of history, even as they talk about salvation, love, unity, justice, and catholicity.

I suppose that in the final analysis, one sees from where one stands—or where one is placed. And for many of us, where we have been placed provides a vantage point from which we have no choice except to see the papal ministry exercised by the current pope as divisive and harmful. For many of us, it’s entirely worth asking whether a pope who wreaks destruction in the name of uniting the church is engaging in effective Petrine ministry, or in its antithesis. For many of us, how the papal ministry has been exercised in this restorationist period seriously undermines a central principle of Petrine ministry—namely, that the pope is to be servus servorum—and fails to give due attention to Jesus's charge to Peter, "Feed my flock."