Look closely at Catholic reaction to Pope Benedict’s decision to vacate the See of Peter and what you see is liberals applauding and conservatives dubious. This reflects the two-party system of conciliarists and anti-conciliarists that has divided the Church for centuries.
The division dates to the 14th century, when theologians like William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua began arguing against the idea that supreme authority in the Church belonged to the pope. Naturally there was plenty of pushback, not only from the popes themselves, but also from the likes of Juan de Torquemada and Thomas Cajetan, who swore by the centralized papal monarchy that took shape in the 11th century.
It’s telling that, the last pope to resign, Gregory XII, did so at the Council of Constance, which in 1415 issued a statement that has gone down in history as the high water mark of conciliarism:
Legitimately assembled in the holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the Catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members.
These days, the two-party system is most evident in contending views of the Second Vatican Council, which marked its half-century anniversary last year. Latter-day conciliarists see Vatican II as a turn towards recognition that religious authority reposes in the body of the faithful; anti-conciliarists, not so much.
By his resignation, Pope Benedict signals that serving as Vicar of Christ has less to do with divine kingship than with being, as the early popes styled themselves, “the servant of the servants of God” — a job you do until you can do it no more. From a pope seen as evolving from Vatican II enthusiast to Vatican disciplinarian, it’s unpleasant medicine for the anti-conciliarist party. Wasn’t he supposed to personify the restored papal monarchy?