Legal Underpinnings for a Papal Resignation

The New York Times published an interesting article by Daniel Wakin titled, “Do Popes Quit?” on the issue of whether a Roman Catholic Pope can resign, which is different from whether a Pope should resign. The issue has arisen in recent weeks as mounting evidence suggests Pope Benedict XVI (a.k.a. former Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich) improperly handled sexual abuse allegations against priests under his jurisdiction in Munich for many years.

At least two previous Popes have resigned, but the most recent was in the early 15th century, when the position was as much a secular European monarch as spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. In fact (I went and looked this up), Gregory XII’s resignation in 1415 was arguably done entirely for the sake of political consolidation of the Church at the end of the Great Schism, during a period of great systematic upheaval in Europe as the concept of sovereign states was emerging in parallel to the existing Church geo-political structure. However, even though he “resigned” and left office, Gregory was not replaced until after his death in 1417, probably to ensure that there was absolutely no question of who was Pope, since he had resigned to conclude a dispute between several factions of “rival Popes.”

As the Times points out, especially with Popes living to be older and older these days, there would be serious questions as to the legitimacy of a new Pope if the previous one had resigned but was not deceased yet. The problem from 1415 would be repeated and potentially worse now for the Church. An ex-Pope would still have a very large following, especially among many of the Cardinals who elected him, and unless he went off into solitude like Gregory XII, an ex-Pope’s public statements would be taken as the word of God and official Church doctrine by his remaining adherents, even if it contradicted or undermined the positions of the sitting replacement Pope. It’s like a former US President openly criticizing the new administration endlessly because he’s around and available for comment, except about a hundred times worse, since devout followers believe the Pope is speaking as God’s own corporeal representative on Earth.

But what about the legal doctrine and precedent? Can a Pope really just resign? Here is what Wakin found:

While it does not apply to Benedict, another reason for papal resignation was widely discussed in the Vatican in the years before John Paul II’s death in 2005. Several cardinals openly raised the possibility in the event John Paul became too ill to govern.

One of those cardinals was Joseph Ratzinger. If John Paul “sees that he absolutely cannot do it anymore, then certainly he will resign,” the cardinal was quoted as saying in the weekly publication of his old archdiocese, back in 2002.

 
That would be ironic if he helped set up the justification for his own resignation, but Wakin notes that he walked that back later…

Two years later, he gave some insight into his conception of the papacy in an interview with the Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana. “The pope is chosen for life because he is a father, and his paternity goes beyond his function,” he said, paraphrasing Pope Paul VI.

John Paul himself entertained thoughts about resigning. In his last will and testament, he wrote, “Providence has seen fit for me to live in the difficult century that is departing into the past, and now in the year in which I reach my 80s, one needs to ask oneself if it is not the time to repeat with the biblical Simeon, ‘Nunc dimittis.’ ” The Latin was a reference to a Gospel passage in which Simeon says, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”

John Paul was responsible for two recent but fleeting references to papal resignation in official church policy. A revision of the code of canon law issued under him, in 1983, says, “If it happens that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”

In John Paul’s 1996 constitution on papal succession, “Universi Dominici Gregis,” he made a reference to “the death or valid resignation of the pope” as he set limits on the College of Cardinals’ actions after either event. In any case, it might be no surprise that the leader of a worldwide church of one billion people would at least think about throwing in the towel. Pius XII reportedly planned to resign if the Nazis invaded the Vatican, and some believed that Paul VI, weighed down by the office, contemplated the idea, according to “101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy,” by Christopher M. Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in Union, N.J.

 
So it sounds like John Paul II clearly laid forth the legal possibility for a Pope to resign and even established some procedure for that. But other than defining “valid resignation” as legally equivalent to death, he didn’t explain any circumstances, I guess. And functionally, of course, as I explained above, resignation is very different from death, in that the person is still around even if no longer legally in the position. One wonders if Benedict would have to go back to being Ratzinger or if he’d be like an ex-President who gets many of the trappings of the office and an elevated “former” status.
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Republicans splinter on $50 bill

A couple weeks ago, I looked at a proposal by a southern Republican representative to replace Grant with Reagan on the $50. Students of (northern) history will recall that Grant is reviled in the South for a) winning the civil war, b) enforcing strong Reconstruction policies with martial law and c) wiping out the original KKK. Reagan, on the other hand, used dogwhistle campaign tactics to win the South in his presidential campaigns, emphasizing pro-segregation code words like “states’ rights.”

While Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) insists that this is a pro-Reagan move, not an anti-Grant one, and notes that he chose one Republican to replace another, I think it’s pretty obvious why most his 17 co-sponsors hail from the South.

Now Republicans outside the South are splitting over the proposal, despite their love of Ronald Reagan. Ohio Republicans are particularly annoyed because Grant was a native son:

State Representative Danny R. Bubp, a Republican from the [Ohio] district that includes Mr. Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant and childhood home in Brown County, is preparing a resolution that would oppose the currency change.

“The Union may not have won the Civil War had President Lincoln not had the wisdom to put Grant in charge,” Mr. Bubp said. “He was just the kind of guy who needed to be there at that time, and we should not diminish his place in history.”

 
Oh snap.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

American Exceptionalism and the Torture Debate

Mark Thompson at the League of Ordinary Gentleman has what I think is an excellent post on how torture runs contrary to this idea that America is an exceptional country.

If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.

 
He goes on to state in the post and in the comments that America is not and has often not been the right country or the most free. Instead, he bases his ideas of American exceptionalism on the founding documents of our nation, which laid out the premise that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Since I’m in a historical minded mood (I should be studying instead of writing this…), I wondered about this.
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