Popes do not retire. They have been forced out of office and have died while in office, but only one sitting pope, Pope Celestine V, has ever resigned his office, doing so in 1294. “ Dante called it ‘The Great Refusal,’” says E. Ann Matter, professor and chair of Penn’s Department of Religious Studies. “It touched off the debate, afterward, of whether the papacy was an office for life or if a pope could resign. And nobody has since resigned. … It sort of made the idea that the nature of the papacy is a lifetime commitment, and you just don’t step away from it.”
That idea figures to be tested in coming weeks. Pope John Paul II is battling ongoing illnesses that have led some Catholics—even those within the church hierarchy—to wonder whether retirement, or “abdication,” should be considered. The pope was sent to the hospital in early February because of flu and breathing difficulties, and he also suffers from Parkinson’s disease and arthritis. In recent months he has sometimes struggled to speak in public, and commentators have remarked the 84-year-old John Paul II seems confused at times. They say his recent bout with illness was his most serious yet.
Pope's lasting legacy
The election of Karol Jozef Wojtyla to the papacy in 1978 turned out to be one of the most important moments in European history: Many experts credit John Paul II, a native of Poland, with helping to topple the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
E. Ann Matter, a professor of religion in Penn’s Department of Religion, does not dispute that—but says John Paul’s success in stemming the rise of Marxist thought within his own church may be his lasting legacy. In the 1980s, so-called “liberation theology” became increasingly popular among South American bishops. It was John Paul, says Matter, who reprimanded the supporters of “liberation theology,” reminding them the church was “the church of the rich and the poor.”
Liberation theologians saw a need to re-evaluate Catholic doctrine through the eyes of the poor. The idea’s rise was rooted in Vatican II—the revolutionary early-1960s church conference that gave church leaders more leeway in how they practiced.
But John Paul, Matter said, acted quickly to stop liberation theology from permeating deeper into the church. He and other top Vatican leaders attacked “liberation theology” in the early 1980s and accused its followers of using it to justify violent revolution.
His actions also re-established the Vatican as the power center of the church, Matter says.
“ That was a message to the liberationists to cool it,” Matter says. “His major impact … was to really ratchet back some of the mindset changes that came out of Vatican II. He’s not a pope who believed in democracy for the church.”
With concerns growing about what would happen—and who would run the church—if the pope were to become incapacitated, the Vatican now faces an uncertain, and difficult, situation: Some say retirement would allow the church to move forward more easily, but many others insist the pope should not, and will not, step down. Church history suggests the latter group may be right.
“ That makes it kind of interesting,” Matter says. “A lot of people are saying, ‘This is the 21st century. We don’t have to do something according to medieval tradition. Can’t this poor man retire?’ But I would be shocked if he stepped down, because nobody has done that. … That could really be news if he stepped down, because it’s just such a taboo.”
That may be, but with questions about the pope’s health becoming more common, church officials are for the first time openly addressing the idea. The head of the Chilean national bishops’ conference was recently quoted as saying “abdication is one of the possibilities,” and a sensation rippled through the Vatican when Cardinal Angel Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said the decision of whether to retire was up to John Paul’s “conscience.” According to news reports, Sodano said Catholics and church leadership “must have enormous faith in him. He knows what he must do.”
Vatican law is clear that a papal resignation would only be valid if voluntary, and if the pope were to become severely ill, that may not be possible. And though there have been reports the pope himself has drafted a letter instructing Vatican officials to elect a new pope should he become too ill to act on his own, the Vatican has denied the letter exists.
The question becomes, then: Who would run the church should the pope fall ill but not be replaced? Matter says other top Vatican officials can function well enough on their own, but without a functioning pope, they would be left somewhat rudderless.
“ The pope doesn’t run the show alone. The [Vatican leadership], whether the pope is sick or not, run their own shows,” Matter says. “But when the pope is sick, they don’t have that further check, and you don’t have the personality of the pontiff—and God knows this pope has had quite a personality, guiding the spirit of the place.”
Matter says while the pope’s ill health may be a cause of concern to some lay Catholics, his resiliency may be a source of inspiration to others—and, knowing what she does about John Paul II, Matter does not believe he would step down.
“ I’m sure there are people who are thinking, ‘Who’s in charge around here?’ but to others this is incredibly moving, because we all suffer,” Matter says. “And I think he is very conscious of that. … I think he wants to hold on.”
Originally published on February 24, 2005