Since the revelation of Archbishop Viganò’s letter, accusing the Pope of covering up for Bishop McCarrick’s abuses, there have been many people urging Francis to resign the papacy (starting with Viganò himself.)
Many of those who make such pleas are highly critical of Francis’ pontificate, even (or especially) in unrelated matters, like his teachings and the pastoral direction he has given to the Church. These people would like to see him gone, no matter the pretext.
But there are also people who, in light of the American abuse crisis, have asked for accountability in the form of resignations (even symbolic resignations of clergymen not directly involved or whose guilt has not been established) and find themselves now forced, to be coherent, to demand the same thing from the Pope.
And there are also people who are legitimately scandalized by all these horrendous acts and who are now having a comprehensible (but in my view, disproportionate and unhealthy) yearning for an official and drastic purge in the Church, that would be (in their view) the only way to restore balance to it.
All of these people clamor for the Pope’s resignation, but I would like to address the question from another angle. We all know about the reasons given for why the Pope should resign. They seem quite obvious and straightforward. However, are there reasons for why the Pope should not resign?
I find there are many reasons for it and people, in their eagerness to make statements on this topic, have been neglecting most of them.
1) These allegations are yet to be proven and properly investigated. As many commenters have been pointing out in the last few days, there are many inconsistencies and partisanship in Fr. Viganò’s testimony (besides some antecedents on Arb. Viganò’s part of non-reliability as far as these kinds of allegations go), that should make us pause (see here and here.)
Yes, these charges should be investigated, especially by objective third parties. Pope Francis agrees with this, since he appealed to journalists to conduct a proper investigation. However, it is still premature to draw conclusions from it… and especially to ask such a drastic measures as a papal resignation.
It may very well be that Arb. Viganò (or the journalists or other competent authorities) may prove these allegations to be true. For now, Viganò has said he will not produce more evidence and the secular media has been unable to confirm his claim.
But even if it turns out that there are more solid evidence on which to rest these accusations, a papal resignation should only come about at the end of the investigation, not as soon as the next sensationalistic title hits.
2) The next reason is tightly linked to reason no. 1… We should not forego the presumption of innocence so lightly. Pope Francis, just like any other person, is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt (emphasis on the word “reasonable”, which excludes every kind of ideological bias or emotionally-driven response.)
Since the Church has been covering up these kinds of abuses for decades, trying to silence victims and casting doubt on their testimonies, there are many Catholics who feel compelled to prevent this from ever happening again by inverting the burden of proof and believing everything until proven false. There is a danger to this… the presumption of innocence has been instituted for a good reason: to allow any person to defend him/herself from unsubstantiated accusations and, therefore, avoid mob lynchings in the public square.
I remember a quote from the movie “A Man for All Seasons”, which used to be widely shared in Catholic circles until recently, where the actor playing St. Thomas More would reply to someone who, in his thirst for justice, would cut down every law in England to go after the Devil:
“Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”
If we, as Catholics, can’t afford the Pope this presumption of innocence, then God helps us, for we are exposing ourselves and others to great evil, not quashing it.
Mind you, this is completely different from “not believing the victims.” We should believe them and support them. We should not, on the other hand, jump to conclusions. The proper response is to demand a proper investigation whenever there is a claim (as the Pope certainly did) and calmly wait for its result. We are not obliged (and in fact, it is not prudent to do so) to have an opinion on cases that we do not have enough information (or competency or authority) to form a judgment on.
3) If Pope Francis resigned while Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is still alive, this would create a situation where we would have three popes in the Vatican: an active one (still to be elected) and two emeriti.
As a Pope Emeritus, Francis would be bound to (mostly) silence, lest he should be accused (rightly or wrongly) of creating an alternative papacy with an alternative Magisterium. This is a very desirable outcome for many papal detractors who wish to silence him and his teachings… or so they think.
However, as we have seen with Benedict, keeping a low profile does not solve the problem. The problem lies in an ideological conception of Catholicism which has transplanted into the Church an extra-Catholic political Culture War and brought about great polarization among the faithful. This ideological conception, being the main driver for many who wish for the Pope’s resignation, is also responsible for the way people have used Pope Benedict XVI (against his explicit wishes) as a weapon against Francis, since his election.
Benedict has been assigned to a symbolic role. For a certain sector of the Church, encompassing conservatives, traditionalists and right-wing leaning individuals, Benedict embodies their ideals of how the Church should be. This is a simplistic take on his papacy, which is too complex, nuanced and sophisticated to fall neatly in ideological party lines… but unfortunately it is undeniable that these conservatives have used Benedict as a kind of token figure for their fight against what they perceive as the encroaching modernism of many clergymen, including Francis.
Since then, every single word (and silence) from Benedict has faced close scrutiny from this audience, so as to be misconstrued and twisted to further their ideological narrative. Sometimes, against solid evidence to the contrary, we have seen conspiracy theories swirling around, according to which Benedict would have been forced to resign, being a kind of “prisioner in the Vatican”, gagged and unable to set things right.
There is no doubt in my mind that, in case of a Francis resignation, we would witness a similar abuse of the Francis figure on the part of the progressive and liberal aisle of the Church, even if Francis would be against it. I pity the poor man who would succeed him in this situation, always having to fight against the two opposing caricatures from both camps, who would try to harness the authority of a pope for their non-Catholic views whenever they saw the Pope teach something they would disagree with.
4) The validity of such a resignation would be dubious at best. As Canon Law states:
“If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely”
— Canon 332.2
As Scott Eric Alt points out, many people who have cast doubt on Benedict’s resignation (because he would allegedly have been secretly pressured to resign by a lobby of sorts,) are also the ones who now are openly pressuring Francis to resign in public. Just showing their inconsistency of criteria and how their only objective is the removal of a Pope they don’t like.
If any resignation is done in doubtful circumstances, this could again nestle more confusion. The validity of Francis’ sucessor would be put in question and further worsen the situation I’ve described in my previous point.
5) It is also not wise to start using Papal resignations as weapons to attack Popes, especially if we have disagreements with them. This can backfire on anyone, especially those who are advancing this kind of scheme.
It is certainly true that the Church has, many times, behaved just as any human or political institution… but that doesn’t mean that it is just that. The Papacy is the guarantor of doctrine and orthodoxy: two things the world hates, for they stand against worldly views. It is not prudent to make the Papacy vulnerable to external pressures, like the pressure to resign.
That would mean that whenever a Pope says or does something uncomfortable to someone, a disgruntled Catholic will just have to dig up dirt (and, if we do not pay attention to point no. 2, that person will not even have to prove their assertions beyond a reasonable doubt) and pressure the Pope to resign. The very role of the Papacy is at stake! The Pope can (and should) be able to disestablish the status quo, to denounce the evils among those who sit comfortably under the umbrella of the Church, without fear of reprisals.
It is interesting that, by asking for Francis resignation in order to demand more accountability and transparency in the Church, we risk doing the opposite. The role of the Pope would certainly become more politicized then and the Popes would be encouraged not to agitate things too much. Instead of fighting against clericalism, we risk aggravating it.
6) Some people may misinterpret my previous three points as a criticism of Benedict’s resignation, as if it set a dangerous precedent. Not so. I do believe that Benedict’s decision to resign was guided by the Holy Spirit in the context of prayerful discernment. However, Benedict also did set an example on how a resignation should come about. In his book-interview “Last Testament”, the Pope Emeritus replies to journalist Peter Seewald:
“[Peter Seewald] Nevertheless the Italian media speculated that the true background to your resignation is to be found in the Vatileaks affair, not only in the Paolo Gabriele case, but also in the financial problems and intrigues among the Curia. Ultimately you were so shocked at the 300-page investigation report into these things that you could see no other way out other than to make space for a successor.
[Benedict] No, that is not right, not at all. On the contrary, the Vatileaks matter was completely resolved. I said while it was still happening – I believe it was to you – that one is not permitted to step back when things are going wrong, but only when things are at peace. I could resign because calm had returned to this situation. It was not a case of retreating under pressure or feeling that things couldn’t be coped with.
[Peter Seewald] In some newspapers there was even talk of blackmail and conspiracy.
[Benedict] That’s all complete nonsense. No, it’s actually a straightforward matter. I have to say on this that a man – for whatever reason – thought he had to create a scandal to clean up the Church. But no one has tried to blackmail me. If that had been attempted I would not have gone, since you are not permitted to leave because you’re under pressure. It’s also not the case that I would have bartered or whatever. On the contrary, the moment had – thanks to be God – a sense of having overcome the difficulties and a mood of peace. A mood in which one really could confidently pass the reins to the next person.”
In other words, now is not the moment. We should not ask for resignations while the current crisis is still raging on. On the contrary, now is the time we are more in need of a solid leadership to clean up the house and stabilize the boat.
Now, I don’t know what the future will bring. Maybe Viganò’s allegations may have some truth to it. Maybe Pope Francis will take all this upon himself and resign. Maybe Pope Francis will resign on account of a completely separate issue (he has hinted at that possibility before all this mess.) I certainly do not wish to limit the scope of his options: the hard decision to resign surely falls on his purview.
On the contrary, this article is directed at those who are asking of him something that is his prerogative and his alone, showing many reasons why demanding Francis’ resignation is not prudent at this point and may backfire in many ways that are not being considered by the majority of people commenting on this topic.
The abuse crisis of the Church should’ve been handled differently by the clergy, but the laity could also have reacted in a different way, denouncing what’s bad and asking for accountability while at the same time maintaining unity with the Church and its teachings and especially keeping a level-headed, rational attitude. As I have tried to explain in many of my recent articles (see here and here,) the supernatural function and essence of the Church remains untouched and we should not fear the purification that may arise from these scandals. In fact, we should actually be welcoming it, but in a serene way. What we have instead is many emotionally-driven reactions asking for drastic measures, without any concern for their consequences, feasibility or applicability.
Also, if I’m allowed to be blunt, trying to force the Pope to resign because you don’t like his teachings is not the Catholic way to act. And no, trying to hide behind concern for the abuse scandals and the well-being of the Church does not cut it, because the bias of many people is showing. They never liked Francis in the first place and want to see him gone from the Chair of Peter. You do not save the Church by acting like this… the correct way to help the Church is through repentance and humility on your part: repentance of the grave sin of dissent and scandal whenever Francis’ papacy and magisterium were undermined; and humility to acknowledge that you don’t know everything about Church doctrine and that Catholicism is meant to challenge your own worldview, not just the worldviews of others.
In this, I find in Pope Francis’ reaction to Arb. Viganò a paradigm of how we should be acting. He didn’t pile up on the stampede, he didn’t add to the mudslinging, nor did he find ways to excuse himself by accusing others and blameshifting. He simply, in a very calm and dignified way, stimulated an objective and dispassionate investigation from third parties and entrusted himself to whatever the outcome may be, for he doesn’t fear truth, but rather is confident that truth will vindicate him. Regardless of what may come, most of us could learn much from this attitude.
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.