The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 12:48:47

It’s not okay to pressure a Pope to resign

Katie van Schaijik, Aug 31, 2018

When Pope Benedict resigned, many conservatives in the Church expressed worry over the precedent. He was exposing the papacy to the danger of political factions pressuring popes to resign. Some speculated that he himself must be resigning because of the intrigue surrounding the Vatileaks scandal (with which, I recall, Bishop Vigano was involved.) 

The Pope Emeritus responded (Jules reminded me yesterday) by saying this would have been impermissible. A pope should never resign because he's being pressured, but only from a place of deep peace and confidence in God's will. [My bold]

I said while it was still happening – I believe it was to you – that one is not permitted to step back when things are going wrong, but only when things are at peace. I could resign because calm had returned to this situation. It was not a case of retreating under pressure or feeling that things couldn’t be coped with.

...the moment had – thanks to be God – a sense of having overcome the difficulties and a mood of peace. A mood in which one really could confidently pass the reins over to the next person.

Now they're doing it. I mean a faction of conservatives is pressuring the Pope to resign. And on incredibly small grounds: a single accusation that "he knew" that Cardinal McCarrick had been guilty of sexual crimes against seminarians. 

Consider, friends: John Paul II "knew" that Maciel was guilty. That is to say, he knew he'd been accused. Does it follow that he didn't care about the sexual abuse of minors or Maciel's double life? No. It means he didn't believe the accusations. People lie. In the atheistic, communist regime where Wojtyla had lived for decades, false accusations were a routine tactic for destroying the reputations of good priests. So, John Paul II looks at the Legion and sees doctrinal orthodoxy, burgeoning vocations, thousands of eager, enthusiastic devotees all over the world, "good fruit" out the wazoo. He listens to Maciel sorrowfully noting that Christ, too, had been betrayed by his disciples, and asking him to pray for his accusers. And he believed him. He declared Maciel "an efficacious guide to youth."

He was horribly wrong about that, but he wasn't guilty of "covering up" crimes.

Bishop Vigano may be sincere in his accusations. It's possible he's telling the truth as he sees it and expressing genuine distress over the state of the Church, just as the authors of the Dubia were. Let's stipulate that he did tell Pope Francis in 2013 that Cardinal McCarrick had "corrupted generations of seminarians."

Maybe the Pope didn't believe him. Maybe Bishop Vigano has a reputation in the Pope's inner circle for being a loose canon, or for being part of the same group of arch-conservative malcontents (as he sees it) that have been undermining his papacy from the beginning. So, he may have taken what Vigano said with more than a large grain of salt. Whether the Pope was right in that assessment is a separate question. (The tone and quality of the letter give reason for thinking the bishop is apt to exaggerate.) What matters in terms of his being guilty of evilly covering up crimes is what the Pope believed.

Consider this too. If the Pope believes that there is a group of too-narrow and rigid conservatives in the Church opposing his priorities and undermining his authority as Vicar of Christ, this letter can now displace the Dubia as Exhibit A. 

Just look at what's happened. The Church is bitterly divided. American conservative faithful are up in arms. They are full of anger and mistrust of the Holy Father. Some are petitioning him and demanding he take action, as if they were his constituents. Why? Because—as I read the situation—they judge the ecclesial scene through the lens of the conservative/liberal cultural and doctrinal battle that has roiled the Church since Vatican II. They see the Pope as a liberal. (He clearly is a liberal in some respects.) They suspect him of wanting to change or "water down" Church teaching. They are confirmed in their suspicions by conservative prelates and opinion-makers they've always looked to as the "good guys" in the Church, like Cardinal Burke, Archbishop Chaput, and Philip Lawler. So, when those guys say Bishop Vigano's letter is credible, they believe it.

I'm not belittling this view. It's held sincerely by many of my friends, who love the Church and are genuinely upset by what's going on. But it's a deeply problematic view.


- None of us knows more than a tiny fraction of what happens in the Vatican. We don't know the characters or circumstances involved; we don't know the history or the background. We have no way of weighing the Pope's actions and inactions justly. 

- The Legion scandal, plus several others implicating conservative groups and institutions in the Church, should have put paid forever to the idea that doctrinal orthodoxy and cultural traditionalism are guarantees of true faith and moral uprightness.

- Similarly, we should know by now that liberals are sometimes right. Even people who have lost their faith may be telling the truth, while conservative prelates are lying.

- Even conservative prelates and opinion-makers who are true believers and excellent men of virtue may be wrong in their judgments. (It happens, as I've tried to show, that I think they are wrong in their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis generally.)

- Being liberal in certain respects (such as emphasizing issues like poverty, immigration and the environment) doesn't mean being "anti-Church." (Take Dorothy DayArchbishop Romero and Fr. Brochero for examples of "left-leaning" saints.) It doesn't entail wanting to water down doctrine. Nor does it have the same color and flavor in all times and places. We might be liberals too, if we'd been raised under a right-wing dictatorship in South or Central America. 

Throughout ecclesial history there have been holy men and women on both sides of political issues and even doctrinal disputes. Every human perspective, valid as it may be, is limited; Catholic Truth and plenitude transcend it. This should make us modest in our opinions and slow in condemning others'.

Maybe most importantly, please consider how odd and inconsistent it is for doctrinal conservatives to be opposing the Pope, who is and always has been and always will be, according to the unchanging teachings of our Faith, the objective center of unity in the Catholic Church. We should have more faith in the protection of the Holy Spirit.

It's not wrong to worry about the Pope. It's not wrong to disagree with him outside the areas of faith and morals. No one is bound to love his way of conducting his office. It's right to ask him to take action against bad bishops. It's good pray for him. It's okay to think he's made mistakes and to wish he'd do things differently. 

It's not okay oppose him or pressure him to resign.  He's not a political leader; he's the Vicar of Christ on earth.