QUAERITUR: Why can a Pope resign? Why isn’t being Pope “for life”?

I have received a lot of emotional email in the last couple days.  I am a bit emotional myself.

Many questions have been raised by the Holy Father’s impending abdication.

This is from a reader:

Can you please shed light on the question on why, in the first place, can popes resign? Why is there a provision for such in canon law? Why shouldn’t the petrine ministry be mandatorily “ad vitam”?

I would also appreciate it if you could further clarify the difference/s between the effects (and exigencies) of the sacrament of Holy Orders (one is priest – or deacon or bishop – forever) and “ministries” or “elections” or “assignments” of the ordained which they can resign from.

Priesthood – a sacrament – causes a change at the level of the soul.  The sacramental character placed on the soul by ordination can never removed.  This is also how it is with baptism and confirmation.

However, the Church has offices – which are not sacraments – which are related to the sacrament of holy orders but not so tied to orders that they cannot be separated.  For example, a man who is a priest can be given jurisdiction over a parish, a bishop over a diocese.  Those offices can be removed or renounced.   Priesthood can’t be removed but permission to function as a priest can be (as in the case of all the priests and bishops of the SSPX).   A man can be made a cardinal, which is an office that carries certain functions.  A cardinal’s cardinalatial office can be removed or renounced (which I hope in one case to see happen before the upcoming conclave).  ”Bishop of Rome” is an office.  It can’t be removed from a man by anyone but God (by means of death) or by the office holder himself abdicating the office.

“Abdicate” is a better word than “resign” for what Benedict did.  Resignations are accepted by someone.  Abdications are not.

Why can the Pope abdicate his office?  The office of Pope carries with it the fullness of jurisdiction in the Church.  The “Petrine Ministry” is a little different from other offices in the Church, but it is an office.  The Successor of Peter does what other successors of the apostles do in that he teaches, governs and sanctifies.  His role also includes being a visible sign of the unity Christ desired for the Church and a point of reference as Christ’s “stand in” or Vicar (vicarius).

As Vicar of Christ, the Successor of Peter is also the one who determines the Church’s law, for the sake of the Church’s good order.

The Pope has this authority by virtue of his being the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, to whom Christ entrusted supreme jurisdiction over the Church He founded.  ”You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16: 18)  He gave Peter His own authority.  In this office he has the task also of “strengthening the brethren”. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22: 31-32). This is a “hereditary” office, so that when a man succeeds to Peter’s office, he receives the authority and role that Peter had. We understand that Christ intended that the office be passed on because of the image He used in speaking of “keys” and the authority to “bind and loose”, which harks to another “hereditary” office in the Old Testament.

Over the centuries – between Peter and Benedict XVI – we have come as a Church to understand more deeply the implications of this office.  It has always been as I described, but only slowly did its practical implications emerge.  Historical circumstances helped us clarify who the Successor of Peter is and what he does in and for the Church, so that the office of “Pope” is what it is today.  I suppose that, over the years, we will learn more about the office and it will shift a bit in how it is manifested.  Perhaps that is what we are seeing now in Pope Benedict’s choice to abdicate.  Joseph Ratzinger has been thinking about the Petrine Ministry for a long time, in the scheme of a man’s life.  He has a perspective on the office that no other living person can possibly have.

Back to the questions.  How can a Pope put this ministry aside?  Why is in not mandatory for life?

No one can force the Pope to do anything.  No one but Christ has the authority to make something “mandatory” for the Vicar of Christ.

The Holy Father, from the moment he accepts the role at his election, has supreme jurisdiction in the Church.  No other person or groups of people together can exercise authority in the same way he does.  He establishes the laws.  Beyond him there is no appeal on earth.  He can act and teach for the entire Church on his own.   So, when he makes a decision he does not have to consult (though smart Popes usually do).  His decisions have effect even if he hasn’t consulted.  His decisions don’t have to be accepted by anyone or any group in order to be licit.  If the Pope decides he will lay down the office, that’s his decision.  There is no other person or group who have the competence or authority to judge his act or accept his act so that it is thereby licit.  The Pope acts freely.  Smart Popes make sure that his intentions are clear.  Therefore smart Popes follow their own laws so that there is not chaos in the Church and people more willingly obey his laws and listen to his teaching and accept him as the visible point of unity Christ intends him to be.  A smart Pope will consult and rely on people and groups to whom he delegates authority in certain areas.  He is human after all and cannot on his own do everything.  But it must not be forgotten that when the Vicar of Christ acts, he does so with an authority and jurisdiction that no other person or group has.

So, it is up to the individual Pope to determine that his papacy will be “for life” … or not.

Another question that rises from this is – If a Pope has this supreme authority that cannot be overturned, could a Pope appoint his own successor?  But that is another question and won’t be dealt with here.  By the power of the keys I give to myself as supreme pontiff of this blog, I close that rabbit hole for the time being.