Feb 12, 2013

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.

So I understand why this pope made the choice he did, and I have some optimism for what his abdication means for the immediate future of the church. But I hope we have to wait another five hundred years, at least, for it to happen again.

Ross Douthat. This makes me think of Alan Jacobs’ comment from a few months ago about the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams — that he “primarily tried to set an example of prayerfulness” and how many of us Anglicans, no matter where we fell on the ideological spectrum, weren’t happy with that kind of leadership from our archbishop. Have all we Western Christians, Protestants and Catholics, each in our own way, moved toward preferring the professionalization of our spiritual leaders?
My name is Wesley Hill. I am an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

This is my commonplace book and sometime-journal.

I blog at SpiritualFriendship.org.

My book is here: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.

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