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VATICAN CITY (RNS) Will Pope Benedict XVI resign?
Less than two weeks ago, that question was just a publicity-grabbing ploy by an Irish online bookmaker.
Now, following charges that he personally mishandled cases of pedophile priests in Munich and Milwaukee, the idea of Benedict stepping down is actually being taken seriously, at least in some quarters of the media.
“With his authority eroded, why does he even remain in office?” wrote Peter Wensierski on Thursday (March 25) in the online edition of the German magazine Der Spiegel.
“If the church is to survive … it will have to go through a wrenching transformation,” wrote the influential Washington-based blogger Andrew Sullivan the same day. “Beginning with the resignation of this Pope and an end to priestly celibacy.”
The Roman Catholic Church’s code of canon law does provide for the possibility of a pope stepping down, as long as the decision is “made freely.”
Yet according to the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, writing in “Lives of the Popes,” no more than six popes have resigned over the Catholic Church’s two millennia of history. All but two did so under pressure from secular potentates.
Gregory XII resigned in the year 1415 at the demand of a council of bishops, called to resolve the four-decade-long Western Schism that had divided the church between two rival claimants to the papal throne.
Only one pope, Celestine V, a Benedictine hermit who was later canonized as a saint, retired of his own volition, in 1294, pleading his unworthiness for the job and desire for a more tranquil life.
At least two recent popes have seriously considered resigning for reasons of physical or mental incapacity.
In 1989, Pope John Paul II left a written declaration that he would resign the papacy “in case of illness presumed to be incurable and of long duration, that impedes me from adequately exercising the functions of my apostolic ministry.”
John Paul noted that he was “following the example” of Pope Paul VI, who in 1965 apparently made similar provisions for his own resignation in case of incapacity.
According to another document, recently revealed by the Vatican-appointed advocate for the late pope’s canonization as a saint, John Paul also considered stepping down when he reached the standard bishop’s retirement age of 75.
The advocate, Monsignor Slawomir Oder, writes that John Paul sought advice from experts on the historical and theological aspects of resignation, “consulting in particular then-Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger,” now Pope Benedict.
Whatever Benedict may have advised, his predecessor finally decided that it was, as he put it, his “duty to continue to carry out the job for which Christ the Lord has called me, as long as he, in the mysterious designs of his providence, will want.”
John Paul, of course, died of natural causes at age 84 in 2005, having endured years of painful illness, still reigning as pope.
Assuming that Benedict’s health holds out, and no secular government or pretender to his throne pressures him to abandon it, the only precedent for resignation that this deeply traditional leader has to follow is that of the monastic Celestine.
For a man whose greatest joys are said to be liturgy, theology and music, there might be moments lately when that option seems hard to resist.

Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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