Only a few popes have resigned in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Don't expect Pope Benedict XVI to join their ranks.
The uproar caused by reports that, as an archbishop years ago in Germany and later as a Vatican cardinal, Benedict and his aides were slow to defrock abusive priests, cannot be explained as the church equivalent of Watergate with the pope in the role of U.S. president.
"I can't imagine the pope resigning," said Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and professor at Duquesne University Law School, who was chairman of the U.S. bishops' child protection board. "The people who are calling for this have no idea the seriousness of what they are asking."
A pope is far more than chief executive of the worldwide church. For believing Catholics, he is the successor to St. Peter and vicar of Christ on earth who is expected to serve until death. Popes are elected by cardinals in a process the church believes is guided by the Holy Spirit.
The cardinals who chose Benedict in 2005 have been his most vigorous defenders.
At the Vatican and among many Catholics globally, calls for the pontiff to resign in the media and from lay people are viewed as a hate-fueled campaign against the entire church and its theology. According to that outlook, resigning would mean surrendering to public forces who wish to destroy the church. This view is particularly strong among observant Catholics in Europe, where society has become increasingly secular and many pews stand nearly empty at Mass.
"The pope defends life and the family, based on marriage between a man and a woman, in a world in which powerful lobbies would like to impose a completely different" agenda, said Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, head of the disciplinary commission for Holy See officials, on Vatican radio last week.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, that, "The pope embodies moral truths that aren't accepted, and so, the shortcomings and errors of priests are used as weapons against the church."
Popes can resign or be deposed, however such occurrences are so rare that the idea of a modern-day pontiff stepping down is hard to grasp.
Canon 332:2 of church law states that if a pontiff resigns, "it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone." Cafardi says the canon is meant to underscore the idea that the pope alone can decide whether to step down.
Past popes who quit served mostly in the church's first millennium, according to Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. Pope Celestine V resigned in 1294, shortly after taking the papal office. (In his "Inferno," poet Dante Alighieri is believed to have placed Celestine inside the gate of hell for his cowardice.)
The last time pontiffs resigned or were deposed was during the Great Western Schism of the late 14th and early 15th centuries when three papal lines competed, Bellitto said.
The issue was raised again when Pope John Paul II became increasingly debilitated by Parkinson's disease. Still, John Paul stayed in the job until his death five years ago. One major worry is that if a pope retires, it could split the church into factions, with some Catholics following the former pontiff instead of the current man in the job.
"Like those who sit on America's Supreme Court, the appointment is for life," said Bellitto, author of "101 Questions & Answers on the Pope and the Papacy." "Unlike the justices, papal retirement or resignation is a rare act, indeed."
The most recent claims against Benedict came last Friday, after The Associated Press obtained documents showing that as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal orthodoxy office, Benedict had resisted pleas in the 1980s from a California diocese to laicize a priest who had pleaded no contest to lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two boys.
In a 1985 letter, Ratzinger acknowledged the accusations were grave but said laicization required careful study and more time. A U.S.-based attorney for the Vatican, Jeffrey Lena, said the case proceeded swiftly, "not by modern standards, but by those standards at the time."
As the latest crisis over clergy sex abuse erupts across Europe, additional revelations about Benedict's past actions could arise that would undermine his authority and create new pressure for him to step down. However, few analysts believe he would ever quit.
William Portier, an expert on Catholic theology and the church at the University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio, reflects the views of Catholics who see no reason for Benedict to even consider giving up his post.
Portier said the church's understanding of sex abuse moved through phases — from a moral issue that was a matter of confession, to a mental illness that required counseling, to a crime. He said the cases that have become public so far show Benedict acting according to the protocol at the time.
"No one wants to hear that," Portier said. "It's possible in principle for the pope to resign, but I don't see any reason that's serious enough that would make him resign."
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