[In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Mennonite pastor within the radical tradition of the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren. Neither reformed protestant nor Roman Catholic.]
Today, Pope Benedict the XVI will resign as the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This is the first time in approximately 600 years that someone has voluntarily vacated the “Chair of St. Peter” and the role of “Vicar of Christ” (their words not mine).
I am critical of the Roman Catholic Church on a number of fronts (theological points of contention, the churches relationship to power and wealth, and so on). But I do find this resignation utterly amazing from a Western, American, cultural, perspective.
We have no religious leaders in America with a level of power analogous to the pope. The closest we come is in the realm of government. Our national executive leader, the President of the United States of America, leaves office after 4 (or 8 years). When they leave office, I often get the sense that they would stay if they could. There are always rumors that our Presidents are trying to change the constitution in order to get another term, or two or three (this was said of Clinton, Bush, and now, Obama). When you have that level of power and authority, it seems hard to let go.
The pope occupies the highest single office within Christendom. Protestant Christians have no analogous role. The Greek Orthodox church kind of has a pope (The Patriarch of Constantinople) but he doesn’t function in quite the same way (that’s a long story). Anabaptists doubt the validity, necessity and wisdom of such a role.
Within the RCC, the pope has the authority to speak ex cathedra or “from the chair”. When he does so, they hold that he speaks infallibly and with the apostolic authority of Peter.
While the overall wealth of the RCC is difficult to estimate, they have wealth in excess of many, if not most, nations.
Given the number of Roman Catholics world wide and the influence of the church in their lives, it is fair to say that the pope has relational influence in every nation under the sun.
What I find truly remarkable, is that anyone – after doing all that is required to rise to such a role – would give it up.
Some people speculate that a scandal lurks behind the resignation. Until such a scandal materializes with accompanying evidence, I’ll take the pope at his word. He is putting the needs of the church above his own desire to be pope. While on a lesser level, it speaks to Paul’s words in Philippians 2 relative to Jesus.
Does this clear up many of my concerns regarding the theology and practice of the RCC? No. Yet in this moment I find the pope’s resignation to be a gesture of true faith and humility for the good of the church.
If such divestment of power becomes the norm for Roman Catholic Church leaders, and for all church leaders and followers of Jesus alike, it means good things for the kingdom of God in our midst.