I must admit that when I heard the news of Pope Benedict’s decision to resign the Chair of Peter I was quite surprised. I was not shocked because he had in the past speculated on the canonical possibilities of a Pope resigning. What impressed me the most was that this was history in the making. I knew that it had been almost 600 years since the last Pontiff had resigned. I also said to myself, “Good for you, Benedict, good for you. Following your own light, your own conscience. Now, I wonder what this will do.”
As the news reverberated around the globe I found myself marvelling at the significance of his decision. This unexpected decision threw most people for a loop. Perhaps in the future Church historians will be able to shed a more comprehensive view of the impact of this decision. But, suffice it to say that Pope Benedict has shaken the hierarchal Church out of its slumber.
I confess that I see little promise of any substantive change in the direction set by the last two pontiffs. The hierarchy of the Church appears to prefer to think and live with a different philosophical worldview than most folks. There is a general communion of spirits between the hierarchy and the pew but little real dialogue on contentious Church matters. Dialogue would require an openness to grow, to change and to moderate one’s views.
Still, what I find particularly intriguing is that Pope Benedict claims he is following his conscience for the good of the Church. Now, following one’s conscience is a complicated matter. The Catholic Church has always argued that one must make an informed conscience and if one’s conscience led one to a position that contravenes the moral teachings of the Church, then one’s conscience was malformed. That at least has been one interpretation of conscience. Others within the Church have interpreted conscience as ‘the Aboriginal Vicar of Christ’ who must be followed at all cost even if it put one at odds with the institutional Church. These differing interpretations of conscience have led to a distinction between the ‘internal forum’ (private) and the ‘external forum’ (public) of conscience. Most seasoned ministers that I know have used this distinction pastorally and prudently and people have been well served because of it.
Pope Benedict’s historical decision seems to have taken the notion of conscience to a whole different level. What do you do when the Pope, who is the earthly Vicar of Christ, follows his own conscience, his own Aboriginal Vicar of Christ, and implements an historical decision for the good of the Church because he feels he is no longer able to provide the leadership required? To me this exercise of conscience holds a magnitude we have yet to fully apprehend. I think it will ripple down the passage of time in ways we have yet to understand. It seems to me that we need more people who, in positions of institutional leadership, listen to their conscience. Our world would then be a better place for all.