The 1917 Code of Canon Law guarantees him the security of his office regardless of health, psychological state, or performance record. No one can impeach him or call for his resignation. Oh, and he has sovereign immunity – under canon law, he’s immune from prosecution for any crime. Talk about job security. So while firing him is next to impossible, Pope Benedict XVI should consider stepping down from the papacy if the post is to retain any legitimacy.
To be sure, I do appreciate the Pope’s revival of the red cappello romano, a highly fashionable outdoor hat with a wide brim. This hat has been neglected by unfashionable popes since the early ’60s. But there are also many things I find distasteful about Pope Benedict’s policies. His refusal to overturn the Vatican’s prohibition on condoms to combat the spread of HIV strikes me as grossly negligent. His motu proprio Summorum Pontificum allows the use of a prayer that asks God to “take the veil from [Jewish people’s] hearts” so they will convert to Catholicism, which creeps me out just a little bit.
But while his hard-line conservative and theological positions on divorce, Jewish people, homosexuality, and abortion don’t resonate with a lot of liberal sensibilities, this is hardly unique to Pope Benedict. It would be nonsensical to ask a leader to resign for simply carrying on the policies of his predecessors. Rather, it is Pope Benedict’s direct and increasingly public involvement in a series of church-wide sexual abuse scandals that demand his resignation.
In 1979, an 11-year-old boy was drugged, stripped, and abused by his priest. Then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger simply transferred the cleric to Munich for “therapy”; he soon returned to pastoral work, where he continued to sexually assault children.
As the cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop urging them not to report rape and torture, which he claimed were the exclusive jurisdiction of the Church. Interestingly, although excommunication from the church was never used against actual rapists and child abusers, it was threatened as punishment against those who reported the offences to the state. That sure cracked down on the scandals. Since then, hundreds of appalling revelations have emerged from church abuse scandals in Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Poland, the U.S., and the U.K.
For the Catholic Church to function as a moral and religious beacon, laypeople need to be able to trust their clergy, and clergymen need to have faith in their hierarchy. Sexual abuse doesn’t just injure its victims and their families; it erodes the entire Church’s ability to work meaningfully in communities or as a credible actor on the world stage. How can anyone preach the word of God with moral authority when its own scandals and abuses are so carelessly swept under the table?
This is not to imply that pedophilia and sexual abuse are unique to the Church. Rape, violence, and abuse happen in a variety of large institutions where vulnerable people are in close contact with trusted authority figures, like schools and assisted-living homes. But the prevalence of this abuse outside the Church does not absolve the Pope of his duty to actively prevent and condemn it. Until the Church officially recognizes that no one is above the law, cases of rape will continue to eat away at the legitimacy of the institution and any claims it makes to representing Christ’s vision.
In 1415, Gregory XII stepped down from the papacy to end the Western schism. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that can be done to restore the Church to order. At the very least, it would be a pretty ballin’ act of penance.
Riva Gold writes in this space every other week until next month. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.