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Is it right for the Pope to Retire?

Robin Gill, Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, has commented on the Pope’s decision to step down from his position as the leader of the Catholic Church.

“The unexpected news this week was the announcement that the Pope is to resign at the end of the month. It is six centuries since any Pope has resigned and most of us had assumed that Pope Benedict would die in office like his many predecessors. Is he wrong to make this decision?

“Monarchs and Popes have long assumed that theirs is a sacred office that must be held until death. They are called by God to hold office and must do so until they die. Abdication has usually been regarded as shameful.

“Archbishops of Canterbury in the past held a similar conviction. Frederick Temple, for example, became Archbishop in 1896 when, like Pope Benedict, he was already in his mid-seventies. He died six years later still in office. Remarkably as a young man he was one of the earliest supporters of Charles Darwin. His son, William Temple, also became Archbishop of Canterbury and he too died in office having been Archbishop for less than three years. However there was a crucial difference between father and son. William was only sixty-three when he died in 1944. The Church of England had already set a pattern of appointing younger men to be Archbishop and, in the event, William was the last Archbishop to die in office. All of his successors, like Rowan Williams (who is still only sixty-three), have retired from office.

“Is this progress? I think it is. The greatest worry about office-for-life is that those appointed may became severely incapacitated. King George III, as everyone knows, lost mental capacity for longer periods in the latter part of his lengthy reign. So, in effect, he was King only in name during these periods. Others were acting for him. Queen Victoria also became very reclusive in the latter part of her reign.

“Pope Benedict is a highly intelligent man. He also watched his predecessor becoming gradually more and more incapacitated towards the end of his long time as Pope. Perhaps he reached the decision then that Popes should be allowed to retire if this happens. After all he was himself one of the key decision makers when Pope John-Paul was becoming increasingly frail. The Monarchy in the Netherlands seems recently to have reached a similar conclusion.

“Two further points. People are living longer and longer. Is it reasonable, then, to expect anyone today, whether Pope or Monarch, to remain in office until death? The longer we live, the more this sounds like a life-sentence rather than a sacred calling. And secondly, in a world of twenty-four-hour news, Monarchs, Popes and Archbishops are subject to constant criticism. Pope Benedict has not escaped. He has been accused, fairly or unfairly, of anti-Semitism and covering up clerical sex-abuse. Well into his eighties he must find this deeply burdensome.

“So I think his decision to retire is wise and godly.”

Robin Gill is Professor of Applied Theology in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent. He has published extensively in sociological theology, the sociological study of churches, Christian and religious ethics, and health care ethics.



Contact: K.Scoggins@kent.ac.uk

Story published at 12:08pm 27 February 2013

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Last Updated: 12/06/2013