The Pope's Resignation: A Possibility?

What's possible, what's plausible, and what's necessary

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The Catholic abuse scandal just keeps getting bigger. As more information comes to light about the pope's involvement in abuse coverups--the New York Times follows yesterday's astounding story on the Wisconsin cases with more evidence of the pope's involvement in a Munich case--questions about the Catholic church's response are growing. As Choire Sicha of irreverant blog The Awl puts it, echoing the thoughts of many: "So the very head of the Catholic Church is directly implicated in multiple coverups of and inaction regarding child abuse. Whatever do we think the Church will do?" Good question. Many are beginning to call for the pope's removal or resignation--the Wire covered Andrew Sullivan's dramatic piece on the subject here--but are those really possibilities? Here's the guide to the debate over what's possible, what's plausible, and what's necessary.

  • Resignation as Penance  In a letter to The Independent, Maureen McCulloch writes of learning, as a young Catholic, that confession is "essential but not sufficient" for absolution of sin. "One had to have serious repentance, and could demonstrate this (to God, oneself and others) by doing penance." What does that mean here? "Cardinal Brady should resign and hand himself to the authorities in Ireland. Pope Benedict should do the same in Germany and all the others who were part of this terrible affair all over the world should examine their consciences and follow suit." It's not about blame but about "these men as devout Catholics, by examining their own consciences, seeing that they have sinned and realising that they need to do penance. They don't need me, or anyone else, to tell them that."
  • 'Full Criminal Investigation of the Vatican'  That's what self-identified Catholic singer Sinead O'Connor is calling for, interviewed by Henry Chu in the L.A. Times. She doesn't specifically mention resignation.
  • The Definitive Guide to Getting Rid of the Pope (Summary: It's Really Hard)  Slate's Christopher Beam gets down to business. The pope cannot be removed from office--"according to church law, there is no higher authority than the pope." Nor can the pope be prosecuted under secular law--he has immunity with regard to local law, and for the purposes of international law is also immune, as he is considered a head of state. Clearly, there have been exceptions to "the sovereign-immunity rule," but Slobodan Milosevic isn't likely to serve as a precedent for dealing with the pope. Technically, continues Beam, once heads of state leave office, they can be prosecuted for crimes committed before they took office (before the immunity period began)--but "the pope almost never retires." The one option open:
A pope may resign, but his resignation must be "made freely," and he doesn't have to tender his resignation to any particular authority. (The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who did so in 1415 to end the battle for the papacy known as the Western schism.)
  • Don't Expect a Resignation  "Inevitably," writes the Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, "people ask dramatic questions such as can the pope survive, can the Catholic church survive? No pope has resigned for centuries," she states flatly. "The pope is likely to stagger on, the prestige of his office much battered."
  • No Joke--Look at the History, adds Mary Ann Sorrentino, who has a long adversarial relationship with the Catholic hierarchy--a Catholic, she was excommunicated for her directorship of the Rhode Island chapter of Planned Parenthood.
The church has a long history of protecting its pontiffs, even when they've ordered killings, allowed the faithful to be slaughtered, fathered illegitimate children, stolen and worse ... Short of the unlikely revival of the feudal tradition (rumored to have been used last on Pope John Paul I) in which pontiffs making waves might be poisoned (or tossed in the Tiber, or fatally injured by an arranged fall off their horse), Ratzinger will be pope until his natural death. The brutal politics of Rome make anything inside Washington's Beltway -- or in the darkest political reaches of Iran, Russia or Beijing -- look benign by comparison.
  • Resignation Isn't the Worst that Can Happen  "The danger," writes Catholic David Gibson at Politics Daily, "is not so much that the pope will resign--that won't happen," he agrees, "and maybe can't happen, under the church's arcane rules and traditions." Rather, he continues, "the real risk is that with new reports of his own record emerging seemingly daily ... the bishop of Rome, despite the aura and authority of his office--handed down from St. Peter himself--will begin to look like every other bishop these days." That's bad for the Church, Gibson says.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.