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Faculty Members Weigh In On Pope’s Resignation

News Editor

Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 02:02

After Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would be stepping down from the papacy at the end of February, Catholics across the world began to process the information.

Considering Boston College’s Jesuit, Catholic affiliation, and the areas of expertise amongst the BC community, a number of University faculty members have already been contacted by major news organizations, including The Boston Globe, Fox News, the radio station WGBH, and The Boston Herald—to share their opinions on the situation.

“I think that it’s good that the Pope resigned,” said Stephen Pope, a professor in the theology department. “It’s an onerous job, and you need to have all your faculties fully operational—and it’s clearly worn him down … It takes some humility on the part of the pope to say, ‘I’m starting to deteriorate—or decline—and I don’t have the capacity I had in the past to do the job.’”

Theology professor Thomas Groome, chair of the Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry department at the School of Theology and Ministry (STM), echoed that sentiment. “I greatly admire Pope Benedict for deciding to resign, having recognized his failing energy for this most demanding of all Christian ministries,” Groome said in an email. “He said that he ‘examined his conscience before God’ in making the decision—a good model for all of us in making the important decisions of life. In resigning he has ‘raised the bar’ for his successors, leaving them free to make the same good decision.”

“It’s important, especially for precedent, for the future,” Pope said. “It’s tricky, though. What we have now is someone who resigns out of a sense of having done what he can do, and a sense of his own limits, and a freedom to let go—and I think many men, put in that same position, would have none of those three traits. They would have an overwhelming sense of duty.” Pope also noted that supporters in the Vatican might exert pressure upon a sitting pope not to leave.

Rev. James Weiss, director of BC’s Capstone Program, agreed that Benedict’s resignation is a positive occurrence. “[Benedict] was a good, gentle, holy, extremely intelligent theologian who saw the long-term problems facing the Church and put things in place to address those long-term problems,” Weiss said. “Unfortunately, he was blindsided by short-term crises that were other people’s fault—namely, cardinals in high office, including his secretary of state and his predecessor. John Paul II managed to keep a lot of problems covered up.”

“This is an historic event—it has not happened for 600 years,” said Rev. Robert Imbelli, an associate professor in the theology department. “And for the pope to do it of his own volition … it came as a great surprise to most people—is I think a sign both of his love for the Church … and an act of real humility—it’s not often that people step down from positions of importance—and I think it’s also an act of courage.”

Weiss also drew parallels back to the last pope who left the papacy before death, Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415. “Gregory XII recognized that the administration of the Church was falling apart,” Weiss said. “In Benedict’s case, when he says his health is not up to the job, what he’s reflecting upon is that the Vatican has fallen apart under his rule.”

“I think in the future, we can now talk about whether there should be term limits for the papacy,” Pope added. Currently, bishops must resign on their 75th birthday, and cardinals cannot vote in a conclave after age 80—the papacy is the only position that serves for life.

Imbelli noted that Benedict’s self-imposition of a term limit was not wholly unexpected. “I think it was a surprise in the sense that it happened now, with no forewarning,” he said. “What is not a surprise is that he was contemplating retirement … he said that, in effect, back in 2010. I myself thought—and this is my own speculation—that he would probably step down in November, at the end of the ‘Year of Faith,’ which began in October and will end in this coming November.”

Even so, Weiss pointed out that the proximity of Ash Wednesday to Benedict’s announcement of resignation was likely not coincidental. “Lent is a period of reflection and atonement for sins, and the Church has reached a point where everyone … is reflecting on the defects of the Church,” he said. He emphasized the symbolism of ashes: Lent signifies giving up one’s old life, and as the Vatican has announced that a new pope is expected to take over by Easter, the Church will begin anew just as Catholics celebrate the rebirth of Christ. “I think that Lent is a particularly good time for having a conclave,” Imbelli said, following the same line of thought. “I think the hope—the expectation—is that the new pope will be installed in time for Easter, and the celebration of having a new pope can join the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.”

In Pope’s opinion, speculation on Benedict’s successor was largely unproductive—as he pointed out, very few people predicted the appointments of either Benedict XVI or his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Pope did say that, although he doubted the chances were very good, he would like to see a non-European pope next. “The advantage of having a pope from the developing world is that most Catholics live below the equator,” he said. “It would be a way of signaling that the Church really is of the people—and the Church really is a global church, it’s not just a European church.”

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