Professors answer questions about the Pope

Faculty say Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication this month is a major event in global history and may impact religion & politics in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Catholic Church (England and Wales). Image taken May 12, 2010.


An unexpected abdication by Pope Benedict XVI on Monday surprised the world and sparked intense public interest in the Catholic Church as scholars, journalists and laypeople sought explanations to an unprecedented event in modern times.

Four Elon University faculty members – Jeffrey C. Pugh, Lynn Huber, Evan Gatti and Jason Husser – share their answers below to some of the most frequently asked questions related to Benedict’s decision and what it means for the Catholic Church – both spiritually and politically – in the United States.

Pugh and Huber are faculty members in the Department of Religious Studies; Gatti is in the Department of Art and Art History; Husser is in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, and he serves as assistant director of the Elon University Poll.

Can a Pope resign?

According to the Code of Canon Law, which governs the Catholic Church, a Pope can resign. The exact procedures for what happens when the Pope resigns, however, are not quite as clear as there has not been a papal resignation since the creation of the modern papal state in 1929. The idea that a Pope could resign dates back to the 13th century, when a religious hermit named Peter was named as Pope, taking the name Celestine V, in order to resolve a deadlocked papal conclave. However, Pope Celestine V resigned after it was clear that he was not suited for the job. In a 2010 book-length interview with Peter Seewald, titled Light of the World, Pope Benedict responded to the question of whether a papal resignation was appropriate: “Yes. If a Pope clearly recognizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has the right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” In fact, many were surprised that Cardinal Ratzinger was selected as Pope in 2005 given his age.

If the Pope can resign, why would he and why are people so shocked by it?

It seems that one reason why people are shocked by this Pope’s resignation is the fact that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, continued in the role into his death 2005 even though he was visibly aging and ill in his final years. This, perhaps, has contributed to a sense that the Pope is in the role for life. Further, since the Pope serves as a representative of Christ on earth and as an infallible source of doctrine, according to Catholic thought, for some it is hard to believe that the Pope might choose to resign.

Benedict’s exact motives for resigning at this point are known only to him, although he cites advanced age and his deteriorating health. Some speculate that the Pope might be responding to the memory of Pope John Paul II’s increasing frailty and that Benedict did not want to have the Church “drift” during any medical problems he may have. We are in uncharted territory here. The Pope indicated that he was responding to his personal concerns about his ability to maintain the necessary physical and spiritual vigor to lead the Church in difficult times.

What’s next for the Pope?

According to reports, the Pope, who likely will be known as Cardinal Ratzinger, plans to adopt a life of prayer and reflection and eventually reside in a monastery within Vatican City. This seems consistent with his life as a scholar prior to being named Pope. Since there has not been a papal resignation since the 15th century, no one is entirely sure what the former Pope’s relationship will be to his successor.

As for Pope Benedict’s legacy, that is difficult to determine. Today he is widely understood as being a traditionalist, holding to the doctrines of the Church even during the tide of societal change.

Will the Pope have a role in “picking” his successor?

Popes are selected by the College of Cardinals, which is currently comprised of 120 men, although only those who are active, which is interpreted as being under the age of 80, are allowed to vote. The Cardinals will be sequestered in the Vatican while they make the decision and the official meetings and ballots will take place in the Sistine Chapel. Votes are taken twice a day during this process with a two-thirds majority needed to select a Pope. After each vote, the ballots are burned, black smoke signalling the majority has not been reached and white smoke famously signalling that the majority has been achieved. While Pope Benedict will not likely have a direct role in picking his successor, he has been appointing Cardinals who will select a successor in line with his perspectives. Any baptized Roman Catholic male is eligible to be named Pope, although traditionally they are selected from the College of Cardinals.

What will this do to membership rolls in the U.S. Catholic Church?

This resignation could cause lowered attendance for Catholics who aren’t deeply invested into the Church. For some Catholics who were already suspicious of the organization, this kind of unprecedented change will raise further doubts and confirm existing fears. As a result, expect a possible decline in Catholic attendance, at least in the short term.

In the unlikely event an American Cardinal is elected, interest in the Catholic Church will likely rise in the United States.

How will the resignation influence Catholic voting behavior?

The resignation will probably help the Republican Party, though only slightly. If the resignation influences adherence rates in the United States, it will probably be among those who attend only occasionally. Those infrequent attenders are asymmetrically Democratic voters. As a result, the Catholic Church could become more homogeneously Republican, making Catholic voters an easier target for GOP politicians.

Furthermore, if the Pope’s successor continues a theologically conservative movement, Catholic voters may become increasingly likely to vote for Republicans for social policy reasons.