January 21, 2023

The Pope who quit 


Muyiwa Adetiba

By Muyiwa Adetiba

In the history of the Catholic Church which is almost as old as the history of Christianity itself, only a couple of Popes have resigned and only one Pope has actually quit. The rest have been ‘married’ to the position ‘for better or for worse, in illness and in health, until death do them part’.

There is a difference between quitting and resigning and I am sure experts in Human or Industrial Relations will articulate this difference better than most. Not being an expert in either, I can only offer an opinion. For me, to quit is to abandon, often abruptly. To resign is to withdraw one’s services, often with notice, but almost always formally. 

Little is known about the Pope who quit – in fact, I didn’t know such a Pope existed until I listened to a beautiful homily by Monsignor John Aniagwu during a Requiem Mass for the late Pope Benedict XVI known as Pope Emeritus – except that he was a hermit who was coerced into the job.

Pope Celestine V served as Pope for only about six months and thereafter left citing ‘a desire for humility and a longing for the tranquility of his former life’. He refused all entreaties to return and a new Pope had to be selected in his stead. He was 84

Pope Benedict, the last Pope to have resigned, died on New Year eve, almost a decade to the day he had tendered his resignation. He was 95 and had been in poor health for a while. St Paul in his one of his letters said ‘to live is gain, to die is Christ’.

Cynics would say the Pope chose the former over the latter because it is arguable if he would have lived as long as he did if he had stayed on in office given the state of his health and the tasking demands of the papacy. Realists, and even history would however suggest on hindsight, that he probably saved the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI was a scholar with an impressive body of work in his younger, more productive years. A highly cerebral man, he became a Professor in his thirties and published several cutting edge books. His theological and doctrinaire leanings which were known through his works had admittedly started to wane during his latter years.

It was therefore difficult to align what had happened during the latter part of his papacy with what he stood for in his earlier years. This was possible because a power vacuum that emerged had been filled by more liberal adherents who constantly questioned some of the age-old doctrines of the Church.

This power vacuum, caused possibly by his ill health, was also unfortunately responsible for the emergence and prominence of sexual deviants resulting in what has become one of the biggest scandals in the recent era of the Church.  So when he resigned, citing mental and physical incapacitation, not a few believed his action helped in preserving the Church. His successor, the reigning Pope, has realised the havoc that a lame-duck papacy can wreck and has written his own resignation letter; to be submitted anytime he felt incapable of leading the Church.

What would make a Pope resign or quit? Especially when there is no obligation, moral, statutory or otherwise to do so? After all, a clique or cabal can run affairs in his stead while he enjoys the adulation and spoils of office. They say power is sweet and the Pope is a very powerful individual – powerful within the Church and powerful outside of it.

He is not only the undisputed Leader of two billion odd Catholics in all corners of the world, he is in addition, the moral Leader of the whole world. He is revered by the West, the East and the Middle-East and seemingly immune to the geo-political intrigues in those zones. He has access to enormous wealth, being the Head of the smallest and probably richest State in the world.

The Church is autocratic by design and the Pope sits at the apex of that institution where his word is often regarded as law. And no matter how you cut it, being a Pope is also the fulfillment of a chosen career in one of the narrowest power pyramids in the world – Priests have been known to jostle to become Bishops, Cardinals and Popes. Yes, power tussle exists within the Church and even in the Vatican.

So why would a Pope who has so much to lose walk away in a world where Leaders – Black, White or Brown – don’t leave unless they are compelled to? We are aware of what happened on Jan 6 2021 in America by a President who wanted to stay on in office. We have just witnessed a replica in Brazil.

We have noticed the manipulative moves towards self- perpetuity in China and Russia. Africa is not any better with incontinent leaders leaking urine in public. In fact, Africa has some of the longest serving leaders who have long passed their productive years – if they were ever productive – still in office. 

It is easy to say the reason Popes Benedict XVI and Celestine V were able to walk away was spiritual. That would be half the story because many spiritual leaders throughout history have clung to power in spite of challenges. In any case, only one Nigerian religious leader – to my knowledge – has handed over to a successor while alive without being compelled to and they all claim to be as spiritual as they come.

I think the reason has to be a detachment from the trappings of office and a focus on the purpose of office. If leaders, spiritual or otherwise, can focus more on the reason for the office and less on the trappings of office, then they would know it is not about them or what they want.

Leadership is a window of opportunity to do the greatest good to the greatest number of people within the shortest possible time. A good leader should recuse himself – irrespective of what the statutes or conventions say – whenever he is not able to fulfill the purpose of his office. Public office is not meant to be self-aggrandizing. It should actually be humbling to find yourself in a position to affect others – your little community or the world at large – positively.

I pray for the day when our Lords, temporal and spiritual, can voluntarily let go for a more capable successor when they find they are no longer physically and mentally able to cope with the rigors of their offices.