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Debate swirls around how long is too long for a pope to reign

NCR Staff

John Henry Newman, convert from Anglicanism and 19th-century Catholic theologian, wrote to a friend in November 1870: “We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a pope to live 20 years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things without meaning it.”

Newman, whose theology is claimed today by Catholics on both left and right, was chafing under the conservative pontificate of Pius IX.

Pio Nono, as the Italians called Pius IX, did not share Newman’s dim view of papal longevity. He reigned another eight years before he died at 85, ending the longest papacy in church history -- almost 32 years, from June 1846 to February 1878.

Today, as Catholicism finds itself under another long-serving pope (John Paul’s 22 years make him seventh on the all-time list), Newman’s impatience is again being felt. It has revived debate over whether papal terms should be restricted. Although there is little historical precedent for term limits -- virtually all popes have died in office -- some argue that popes, like other bishops, should be obligated to resign at 75. Others contend that popes, like the heads of religious communities, should serve for a fixed term such as six years.

The debate produces sharp divisions among students of the papacy, who disagree not only about the wisdom of term limits, but also about whether requiring a pope to resign or to serve a limited term is even doctrinally possible.

“It’s a backdoor way of undermining the primacy of the pope,” said Russell Shaw, former secretary of public affairs for the U.S. bishops and author of the forthcoming book Does the Pope Need Taming? (Our Sunday Visitor).

“Where would a policy like this come from?” Shaw said. “It would have to come from the pope himself, or maybe the pope and a council, but it cannot be legally binding on the next pope or any other down the line. That would invalidate the principle that, as a matter of divine doctrine, the pope is the highest authority in the church.”

Historians debate the exact number of popes who have stepped down, but it has happened several times. The last pope to do so was Gregory XII in 1415, who acted to end a schism. Church law makes provision for resignation, in Canon 332: “If it should happen that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he make the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.”

Shaw’s argument about undercutting papal primacy is vigorously rejected by an Australian church historian, Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, whose book Papal Power (Harper Collins) triggered an ongoing investigation by the Vatican.

“I don’t think the pope is free to do whatever he wants,” Collins said. “He is bound by tradition and the teaching of the church. Certainly he can be required to step down.”

Collins argues that the doctrine of papal infallibility offers a parallel case. Pope John XXII condemned papal infallibility as heretical in 1324, precisely because he felt it placed an unacceptable limit on papal power -- popes would be bound to uphold the teaching of their predecessors. “Yet it’s now a dogma of the faith,” Collins said.

Sociologist and novelist Fr. Andrew Greeley told NCR that he thinks it may be difficult to compel a pope to resign, but he favors a “custom” of popes voluntarily standing down. “The pope could say, ‘I will serve only five years, and I hope that future popes will make a similar pledge,’ ” Greeley said. “That way there is no threat to the primacy, because the pope is doing this under his own authority.”

Most supporters of term limits, noting that the average length of a papacy over the course of church history is approximately seven years, support policies that would in effect limit popes to around 10 years in office. They differ, however, as to whether mandatory retirement or a fixed term is the better approach.

Collins opposes a fixed term like those of heads of religious communities. “The pope acts too much like the head of a religious order already, involving himself in the minutiae of church affairs,” he said. Instead, Collins proposes that popes be obligated to resign at 80, the age at which cardinals lose their right to vote in papal elections.

Others find term limits more attractive. The Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, a group that has proposed a constitution for the church, supports a single 10-year term. Terry Dosh, the association’s president, said the claim that popes cannot be bound by term limits reflects outmoded principles of Roman law.

“The prince is on top and everyone else is beneath, and the prince stays on top as long as he’s alive,” Dosh said. “We need to change the law of the church so it’s consonant with the new ecclesiology that came out of Vatican II.”

Dosh also noted that under a mandatory retirement age of 75, the church would never have elected John XXIII, who was just shy of 77 when he became pope in 1958 and 80 at the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

For supporters of the idea, the strongest argument for term limits Ñ whether by retirement age or fixed term -- is that as popes stay in office, their policies become more rigid and less capable of adapting to new circumstances.

“A long papacy gives policies an inertial strain towards permanence,” Greeley said.

Some fans of the current pontiff, however, reject this conventional wisdom.

“Would the world have been better off if this pope was not able to go to the Holy Land because he was five years over the age limit? I don’t think so,” said George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II (Cliff Street Books).

“In fact, you can trace a trajectory of liberation in John Paul II over the years -- his rhetoric has become simpler, more pure, more evangelical,” Weigel said. “He has felt a kind of holy urgency to keep pressing things that others wish would just disappear, such as the trip to the Holy Land, the Lenten liturgy of purification of memory, and the pressing of dialogue with Orthodoxy.”

Weigel said he hopes the synod on bishops scheduled for October 2001 reopens the question of mandatory retirement, because he believes Paul VI was “following a corporate model” when he created the requirement that bishops offer their resignations at 75.

“The episcopate is not essentially a managerial office -- it is evangelical and pastoral,” Weigel said. “There is nothing in the theology of the office that leads you to the conclusion that bishops should retire at 75.”

“Why are we thinking about the completion of an episcopal vocation through the crude measure of a birth certificate?” Weigel said.

Fr. John Jay Hughes, author of Pontiffs: Popes Who Shaped History (Our Sunday Visitor), says that from the point of view of efficiency, mandatory retirement or term limits make sense. But he believes there are higher considerations.

“Do we really want to make efficiency the highest rule of the church?” he said. “Or is it more important for the church to show the world that it lives by different rules from all other societies?”

Another argument sometimes put forward by opponents of term limits is that if the church is faced with two living popes, it creates the possibility of schism. Hughes says that fear may be overblown, but the influence of the “pope emeritus” would be felt another way.

“No matter how carefully he isolates himself from the conclave, his shadow would fall over the cardinals and could hamper their freedom to elect a very different man,” Hughes said.

Other observers say that modern democratic societies offer plenty of examples of chief executives who step down without splitting their nations or hampering the election of a successor.

Collins said that despite the doctrinal controversy, he does not see the issue of restricting papal service in theological terms.

“In the old days, people died sooner. Now medical science is keeping people alive, and we have to have some way of dealing with it,” Collins said. “This has nothing to do with ecclesiology. We mystify things too much, turning them into towering theological principles. Actually these are just bloody basic matters of good government.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000