The Pope’s resignation and the vocation of the Church – March 2013


The Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, welcomes the Pope’s decision to resign and outlines some of the challenge facing today’s Church. He argues that the question of who should lead it is dependent on the bigger questions of what it needs to do to face the future.

Pope Benedict’s announcement that he would resign from his office was not totally unexpected. He had at times spoken and written about the need to abdicate should his physical and mental strength diminish. And yet, his decision has brought about a new situation for the Church. Unlike earlier changes of popes, in this instance there is a bit more time to reflect on the nature and form of Church government and on which person might be best suited to lead the Church into the near future. I welcome the Pope’s decision to abdicate – both out of a deep respect for his personal insight into his health and his respective limitations, and because his move has suddenly transformed the papal office into a much less dramatic role. One can decide to cease being pope. The terms of office can be limited. All of this suggests that the papal office is a truly human office. I am also touched by the Pope’s personal words to the assembled cardinals in Rome asking for forgiveness for all of his defects.

The period between now and the conclave in the middle of March is filled with speculations about who among their group the cardinals might wish to select as the new pope. Bookmakers have already cluttered our papers with their respective advertisements as if this election process were like a horse race. However, the real question is who among the cardinals would have the strength and courage to lead the Catholic Church with all its many structural and pressing problems and challenges? I hope that the cardinals will use this extra time to contemplate most seriously the real and hard facts of today’s Church and what it means to respond to God’s call in today’s world.

This reflection would seem more necessary than any speculation on particular personal ambitions or ecclesial and curial power games. For, under the last two popes the really big challenges facing the Church have not been dealt with. Rather, in order to intensify the profile of the Church, the levels of centralisation and clericalisation have been further increased in clear opposition to the Second Vatican Council’s commitment to collegiality and the priesthood of all people. Regional churches and their traditions and valuable contributions to the whole have been systematically ignored and weakened. There has been much talk about the shift of the Church from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere, but these ‘new’ parts of the Church have not received any more influence in the Vatican. Instead Rome has decided to control and organise the appointments of all bishops usually without any regard for or transparent discussion with the regional churches. The Roman Catholic Church has become more Roman and less Catholic. The place and vocation of women in the Church and the overall significance of the vocation of lay Catholics have not been properly discussed and recognised. The radically increasing shortage of priests capable of leading a parish has not led to a serious theological rethinking of either mandatory celibacy or the ordination of women. All proposals for structural reform have been opposed by the Pope and the Vatican even in the aftermath of the horrendous abuse scandals. Ecumenical concerns have not been high on Benedict’s agenda. As far as contacts with the Churches of the Reformation are concerned, nothing much has happened under his pontificate apart from some kind gestures, while the contacts with the schismatic Society of Pius X have received enormous (and at times disastrous) levels of attention. Hence, today our first question must be what the Catholic Church needs in order to face the future. The question of who should lead the Church is dependent on the bigger question of where the Church should go in the years to come. The right candidate will be the one best able to lead the church forward on this path.

Maybe it would also be appropriate to use the longer period of reflection this time round for discussing the question of whether or not the current order of electing a pope corresponds to the real needs of the Church. That some 115 older men alone should decide on the direction which the Church is to take cannot be understood as a self-evident command from God. Rather this order has resulted from the Church’s patriarchal structure over a number of centuries. Theologically, there is nothing which speaks against a more appropriate organisational structure. More than half of all engaged Catholics are women, yet their spiritual, theological, ecclesial and practical competence and experience in the service of God and of God’s church do not receive adequate recognition in today’s hierarchical form of Church governance. To claim that this form of exclusion was God’s will amounts to blasphemy. God has invited all men, women and children to participate in his universal project of creation and reconciliation, a project so powerfully confirmed through the ministry, death and resurrection of his son. All ministries in the Church, including the Petrine office, are to serve this divine project and receive their legitimacy from it. Benedict XVI has often written and lectured on the need for both faith and reason in Christian life. He has stressed the significance of good theology for the Church – a theology that reflects critically and self-critically on the Church’s vocation and choice of direction. The space suddenly opened as a result of his free decision to leave his papal office must be appreciated as a renewed invitation to prayer and theological reflection, to faith and reason, to thought and reform in order for the Church to be better equipped to respond to God’s call in Christ to be a genuinely transformative force in God’s world under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Werner Jeanrond was Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow from 2008-2012 and has held academic posts at the University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin, and Lund University in Sweden during his distinguished academic career. He is the author of many books on theology, including A Theology of Love, 2010. His work has been translated into many languages.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.