This coming week will be a historical one in the catholic church. For once, the ambiguity with regards to the word ‘catholic’ (which can mean ‘universal’ ie., all around the world or it can mean the denomination of the Roman Catholic Church) works well. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has made a lot of people scramble for the ‘rule book’ which I take to mean constitutions, by laws, protocols and procedures and any other historical documents that might be relevant! The resignation was so unexpected, the last one being nearly 600 years ago, that it seems the Vatican and therefore the Roman Catholic Church are entering unchartered waters. I, for one, am interested – with almost an excited anticipation – to see what will happen next. I don’t mean specifically who will be the next Pope interesting as that will be but whether or not what I perceive as a major change actually is one.
In his resignation announcement the Pope said, ‘ … After having repeatedly examined my conscience be-fore God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. …’. The Papacy is the final arbiter of all theology for Roman Catholics. If there is a dispute between priests, theological emphases, interpretations of Scripture – please accept this extremely simplified version of complex bureaucracy – the final umpire – think cricket or baseball – is the Pope who can decree who is ‘in’ or ‘out’. He calls it as he sees it. But now Benedict has highlighted his conscience before God as determinative for the enacting of the Petrine ministry. So Benedict’s conscience led him to resign.
What is to stop another Pope whose ‘conscience under God’ leads him to conclude that an ‘adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry’ is say, married priests (as an example)? My reading of church history had me understand that the Roman Catholic Church was increasingly bound by the teachings of the past – which set the trajectory for the future. But if conscience can come into the mix …?
Well, I just wonder what the church will look like in a hundred years?!
An appeal to conscience is powerful. Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521 when he was called on to retract his teachings concluded his defence with these words (or words similar): ‘Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.’
Consciences are not infallible though they are powerful. I don’t know if this stance will change Roman Catholicism more than having a papal resignation in its 21st century history. I do know when one’s conscience is captivated by God’s Word, grounded in it, that you also can’t be sure what will happen next but you follow where God’s Word leads. Next Thursday at 8:00pm (Italian time) marks an irrevocable change for the Roman Catholic Church. God bless Benedict in his retirement. — GS