This blog is very interested in ecclesiology, so I'd be remiss If I didn't note the big news out of the Vatican this week. The Pope's surprising announcement that he'd be stepping down sent shock waves thru the Roman Catholic Church as well as the wider Christian community. Actually, it's more proper to call this an abdication rather than a resignation. After all, Popes aren't supposed to resign! This is supposed to be a divinely conferred lifetime office more like a king or queen than a CEO. Or is it?
If I was a Catholic Christian I'd have some concerns about what Benedict XVI's decision says about the nature of the office. Ross Douthat -- who is Catholic -- expresses those concerns. He writes:
There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.
This last point is underplayed, but supremely important. Catholicism’s resilience has always depended both on the power of the pontiff to sustain unity and safeguard doctrine and on the power of the Catholic faith itself to survive leaders who are wrongheaded, incompetent, senile or corrupt. (There’s a reason why relatively few popes have been canonized, and why Catholics wear their faith’s ability to recover from the Borgias as a badge of honor.) And if papal resignations became commonplace and expected, I worry that they might end up burdening the papacy with a weight it cannot bear — encouraging Catholics to lay far too much stress on the human qualities of the see of Peter’s occupant, and encouraging the world at large to judge the faith’s truth claims on whether the Vatican seemed to be running smoothly, and whether the pope’s approval ratings were robust.
To be fair Douthat sees some possible benefits coming out of this, but I think he astutely sees how this "resignation" opens the door to some difficult questions about the papacy. Coincidentally, I'll be leading a discussion on Sunday about the article in The Apostles' Creed that states: "I believe in the holy catholic Church." This is an article of faith held in common by Catholics and Protestants, but I suspect if we drill down we'll discover some significant differences in how we define "the holy catholic Church" and those differences would revolve around the office that will soon have a new face.
Like the evangelical leaders quoted in this round-up of reactions I'm thankful for this Pope's steadfast stand on issues that all Christians should care deeply about, and I pray for the day when the spiritual unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church will be made more visible than it is now.