Vicar of Christ

What does the pope’s resignation mean for Protestants?

By Bill Leonard

In the year 376, St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (Vulgate), wrote to Pope Damasus: “As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none save your Beatitude, that is, with the chair of Peter. For this, I know is the Rock on which the Church is built. This is Noah’s ark, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood overwhelms all.”

Some 1,637 years later, the papal “ark” remains, as do the floods that threaten it inside and out.

On Monday, Feb. 11, Benedict XVI, the 265th successor to St. Peter, announced his resignation as Vicar of Christ on earth, the first pope to do so since Gregory XII resigned in 1415.

Gregory’s resignation came as a result of pressure placed upon him by the Council of Constance to end the Great Schism, a period between 1378 and 1415 when there were two, sometimes three, popes based in Rome, Avignon, France and even Pisa, Italy.

To end the schism and return to one Roman pontiff, the Council of Constance offered Gregory appointment as a cardinal with a nice pension. (The same Council also instigated the burning of proto-Protestant/Moravian John Hus.)

The last pope to resign of his own free will was actually Celestine V, a monk summoned unwillingly from his hermitage who relinquished the papal office after only a few months to return to a life of prayer and fasting.

Benedict XVI apparently intends a similar spiritual regimen in a convent in Rome, praying, studying and writing. The pope attributed his decision to the realities of “advanced age” that made the demands of his office increasingly difficult to sustain.

A close confidant of his predecessor, John Paul II, whose long dying became a papal “witness” to the world, Benedict nonetheless made no secret that resignation was a real option when popes can no longer lead the church effectively should “strength of mind and body” begin to fail.

He concluded, “with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”

Such language illustrates that the papacy remains among the most enduring medieval institutions in the modern world. (The contemporary university isn’t far behind.)

Catholics believe that their popes have occupied the See (seat) of Saint Peter since Jesus Christ spoke these words to the “Prince of Apostles:” “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Pope Leo I, whose views on the human/divine nature of Jesus became church doctrine, claimed the title of Vicar (representative) of St. Peter around 450.

By 1215, Innocent III, one of the most politically and religiously powerful popes in Christian history, declared: “We are the successor of the Prince of the Apostles, but we are not his Vicar, nor the Vicar of any man or apostles, but the Vicar of Christ himself.”

Acting on that authority has never been easy for popes. Boniface VIII, a close successor to Innocent, died in exile and the papacy was shipped to Avignon. Pius VII watched Napoleon crown himself emperor, only to be kidnapped by Napoleon’s troops and carted mercilessly across the Alps.

Pius IX became “Prisoner of the Vatican” when Italian independence ended a millennium of popes’ claims to the “papal states.” Pius responded with the doctrine of papal infallibility and the “Syllabus of Errors,” a denunciation of religious liberty, freedom of the press and other dangers of the “modern world.”

Those views were moderated by John XXIII who called Vatican Council II (1961-1965), affirmed religious liberty, and spoke of aggiornamento, “bringing up to date.”

Debates over the meaning of that effort continue and will certainly shape the pending papal election. But whoever is elected confronts major challenges, some recently listed by Catholic journalist Kevin Clarke:

-- Growing secularization and antipathy of the West.

-- Violence toward Christians in Islamic nations (like Pakistan, Egypt, Syria).

-- Evaporating Christian presence in the Holy Land, Iraq and across the Middle East.

-- Revelations of clerical sexual abuse in Africa and Latin America, which have yet to adequately confront the problem. Continuing revelations of abuse in North America.

-- Ongoing priest shortages and plummeting church attendance.

-- Calls for optional celibacy and persisting demands for women's ordination.

What does this mean for Protestants? Speculations abound. Friend and former colleague Glenn Hinson suggests that Benedict’s action may set a new precedent for aging popes, making resignation more normative in the future.

Another well-respected academic insists that Benedict could well be the “next-to-last” pope if a frustrated laity, trapped in a medieval all-male hierarchy, looked elsewhere for leadership. Many in that hierarchy insist that church and papacy will endure, perhaps jettisoning millions who refuse to conform to timeless dogma.

As Protestants, we might acknowledge that at least Catholics know where to find Christ’s Vicar. In many of our traditions one never knows when a new claimant may appear.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.