First thoughts on the stunning news

It could very well be that Pope Benedict's greatest contribution to Catholic ecclesiology will be that he resigned the papal office. Everyone has known that it is possible for a pope to resign; the Code of Canon Law mentions it. But part of the very modern "mystique" of the papacy has been that it stands above and apart from all other offices in the Church, that by it the pope is so closely associated with Christ that for a pope to resign might almost feel like a betrayal of Christ. As Pope John Paul II was fading awaylike a melting snowman, a friend described the sight, one even heard people say that for him to resign would be like asking Christ to come down from the cross. John Paul himself is supposed to have said, with regard to a possible resignation, "To whom would I submit my resignation?" My answer was: "To the Church"...By this act, his frank admission that to carry out the Petrine ministry certain conditions of bodily and mental health are required, Benedict helps bring the papacy back within the Church, down from what Hans Urs von Balthasar called pyramid-like isolation. It also suggests the thought that if a pope can resign for health reasons, he might resign for other reasons also, as, for example, because he agrees with something Newman said in 1870: "It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, does cruel things without meaning it." (This reminds me of the jibe about two things that happen when a man is made a bishop: Hell never have a bad meal again, and hell never hear the truth again.) In other words, even though no term-limits may be assigned to the papal office, a pope can have his own term-limits in mind, and say to himself, and to the Church, "Basta!" If papal resignations were to become something normal (that is, not occurring only every six hundred years or so...), then there might be less reluctance to elect someone younger and still energetic without the fear that he will wear out his welcome.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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