Shock resignation by traditional pope is fully in line with Church law

February 11, 2013

(Pope Benedict XVI (C) at a consistory at the Vatican February 11, 2013 before announcing his resignation. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano )

Pope Benedict would not be the meticulous theologian he has always been if he didn’t make sure even his shocking resignation – the first by a pontiff in over 700 years – was fully in line with Roman Catholic doctrine.

His announcement was so stunning that many Catholics will have instinctively asked if a pope is allowed to step down. For many of them, Pope John Paul’s long and very public agony before he died in 2005 is the iconic image of the end of a papacy.

But the Code of Canon Law, the legal corpus governing the Church, clearly provides for a papal resignation in its Canon 332. John Paul mentioned it in a detailed 1996 document that laid down the procedure for electing a new pope.

Benedict’s reputation as an orthodox and self-effacing pope ensures there will be few questions about the legality of the move and will reduce speculation that he plans to continue to play a decisive role behind the scenes.

“This is a very surprising move from a very traditional pope,” said Christopher Bellitto, a Church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. “It’s quite heroic.”

Benedict’s deep respect for the papacy insures he will avoid the problems that could arise, he said: “He’s a company man – he’s not going to do anything to harm the institution.”

By citing health reasons for his decision, Benedict has also helped the Church by setting a modern precedent for resigning at a time when medical progress means the elderly can live far beyond their active years.

“There will be more and more medical issues, like what to do if a pope is incapacitated, and this will make it easier for future popes to resign,” Bellitto said.

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