THE BLOG
03/05/2013 09:15 am ET Updated May 05, 2013

The Twilight of Papal Power?

In the wake of Benedict XVI's surprising resignation of the papal office, more than a few pundits have had recourse to an old Italian saying, if only to underscore its irrelevance in the current situation: morto un papa, se ne fa un'altro -- loosely put, when a pope dies, you simply elect another one.

What to say, however, in the anomalous instance when a pope resigns his office? Again, put simply, you elect another one. And so it will be in the coming weeks as the Cardinal-electors descend on the Vatican to choose Benedict's successor.

This is not to ignore the obvious historic -- though not unprecedented -- dimensions of Benedict's announcement. Nor is it to underestimate the extent to which the first such resignation in centuries effectively has cast the Church headfirst onto terra incognita. So many questions abound, from the ceremonial and the procedural to more substantive concerns about the shadow a living former pope may cast on the work of his successor (or successors), and about the implications going forward for the very functioning of the papal office and its claims of primacy in governing the universal Church.

Yet for all the imponderables, Benedict's resignation has left the papacy, and the whole of the Church, rather more solidly on terra firma than might at first appear. As Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, said recently, the pope has broken a centuries-old "taboo." In so doing, he has performed what the Cardinal calls a "liberating act for the future" by repudiating the antiquated notion that a pope should die in office in order to preserve the semblance of papal power.

In effect, Benedict has spared his Church the specter of an aging and ailing pontiff inexorably losing the capacity for resolute governance of a complex, multi-faceted institution and diverse global faith community. Already in 2010, Benedict laid bare the rationale and justification for this historic move. "If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling his duties in office," Benedict observed, "then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation, to resign."

To speak of papal resignation as an obligation shows a theologically grounded understanding of duty and service. But it also reveals a cold pragmatism about the potentially damaging implications for the Church of a pope whose many distinctive yet unified duties and responsibilities far outweigh the man's physical or emotional strength.

Perhaps Benedict's mind is troubled by a proximate past, informed by his lived experiences working alongside John Paul II. Indeed, the physical infirmities of Benedict's beloved predecessor serve as a powerful lesson about the inherent dignity of all human life, but also as a cautionary tale of how human frailties can limit and impede a pope's capacity for effective governance, especially in times of acute crisis.

Many popes have confronted openly the dilemma of a papacy in the twilight of its power. It is said that Pius XII's last words as he lay dying in October 1958 were for prayers "that this unhappy situation for the Church may end." Pius XII knew that a sick and infirm pope could not function effectively in an institution where ultimately he alone had the authority for definitive action on vital governance issues. Long before he died, though, there were signs that age and repeated bouts of illness had taken their toll on Pius XII's capacity to govern with a strong hand. In the waning years of his pontificate, Pius XII's governing office exhibited signs of inertia and stagnation, even while the pope continued to fulfill the sanctifying and teaching offices that are proper to the papacy often in imaginative and dynamic ways.

Pius XII's waning capacity for resolute governance was manifest in dysfunction at the very apex of ecclesial power. Each successive bout of illness left the pontiff weaker and more dependent, physically and psychologically, on a small and ever narrower circle of confidants. Competing agendas and petty jealousies festered, thereby accentuating the dawning awareness of a pending transition in papal power. For many observers, including many faithful Catholics, it reinforced the image of an ecclesial government increasingly out of touch with reality and incapable of providing the kind of evangelical leadership they expected from Peter's successor.

Tellingly, virtually every pope in the last century has addressed explicitly the possibility of a papal resignation, using the papal legislative prerogative to clarify procedural questions about how things ought to proceed should a pope see fit to renounce his office. What each of them down to the present pope have failed to do is to address squarely what experts say is a singularly vexing gap in church law, namely, what is to be done should a pope be either temporarily or permanently incapacitated and thus not possess the requisite mental capacity to willingly and freely resign his office.

Benedict's resignation does nothing in a juridical direction to address this potentially troublesome gap, adding one further item to the demanding agenda that awaits the next servant of the servants of God.

Check out a round-up of papal succession below:

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Past Popes