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Georgetown Catholic Scholars: New Dynamic Formed When Pope Steps Down

February 11, 2013 – Georgetown’s internationally renowned Catholic scholars say having a former living pope while a new pope reigns will pose an interesting dynamic rarely seen in history.

Chester Gillis, an expert in Catholic studies and dean of Georgetown College, Rev. John O'Malley, S.J., an acclaimed theologian and Rev. David Collins, S.J., offer their opinions from different perspectives about Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry (office of the pope),” the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church relayed in a statement this morning.

The pope said he would step down on February 28, and Vatican officials say a successor could be named by Easter.

“I was taken aback,” Gillis says. “Even papal watchers I think are very surprised at this announcement.”

A New Dynamic

The dean finds the prospect of what happens after the current pope steps down and a new pope is elected by the College of Cardinals particularly interesting.

In the United States, he notes, citizens are accustomed to dealing with former presidents, who sometimes become advisors to current presidents. But having a current and former pope living at the same time is unique, at least in modern times.

“What will happen with Benedict in this case?” says Gillis, a professor of theology who served as the initial holder of the Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies at Georgetown. “And that will be an interesting dynamic. …Will he be an advisor to the pope? Will he consult with the pope? Will the new pope consult with him? … It will be an interesting dynamic to see if the new pope forges his own way completely independent of Benedict or if he follows in Benedict’s footsteps, as Benedict with John Paul II …”

Immediate Legacy

Gillis also says that while “only history will tell what the real legacy” of Pope Benedict XVI will be, the pope’s immediate legacy will be twofold.

“He will have shepherded the church through a very difficult period because of the sexual abuse crisis,” he says, “… he’s had to manage all of that and all the consequences of that, both the reputation of the church and the financial consequences, which have been significant.”

His other immediate legacy, Gillis says, is that “we do see a more conservative church he has left behind … and I think he’s franchised that part of the church very heavily and I think that will be a legacy going forward.”

Historical Perspective

Rev. John O’Malley, S.J., an internationally renowned expert on the Vatican at Georgetown, is the author of What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard, 2008) and other books.

A student in the early 1960s at the American Academy in Rome while the debate on the historic Second Vatican Council took place, O’Malley notes that “several other popes [in history] have resigned but usually under some kind of external pressure.”

He says the clearest case of a somewhat voluntary resignation took place with Pope Celestine V in 1294.

Stepping Down

“Even then there were people telling him ‘you better resign’ because he’d only been pope about six months, and it turned out he could hardly read Latin,” says O’Malley, a university professor in the theology department. “There was pressure from the cardinals for him to resign so he did.”

O’Malley says Pope Gregory XII resigned in the early 15th century but knew if he didn’t he would be deposed. Three men each contended he was the pope and
two were deposed by the Council of Constance (1414-1418), the professor says.

“So you can hardly call that a free resignation,” he adds. “In this case, Benedict XVI is unprecedented in that there seems to be no external pressure, simply his own sense that the job was beyond him. So I congratulate him for that. It is good to know that you can no longer do the job and you step down. Good for him.”


Humble Precedent

Rev. David Collins, S.J., an associate professor of history at Georgetown, notes that the possibility of a pope resigning has increased in the past 20 years.

“One has to do with the different ways that we age today than in the past and the different role that the papacy plays in the life of a church,” he says.  

He notes that longer life expectancy has resulted in longer periods of mental and physical decline, making it more probable that a pope could find himself in Pope Benedict’s position.

“I think people conscious of that are looking for exactly the kind of precedent that Benedict is, very humbly, setting for the church,” he says.

Media wishing to contact these scholars may contact the Office of Communications at 202-687-4328.

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