papal sealLook 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?

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading your religious news publication – got onto it by grabbing Walsh’s skilled chronicle of the OCA (Orthodox Church in America) and its egregious troubles, which are none less than my own Catholic Church (Byzantine & Ordinariate ties).

    So I’m looking for a little more from you (or Walsh et al) on the papal resignation, however good-spirited or ‘fair-minded’ it is. Something’s afoot. We need to dig deeper. Reports are that His Holiness had a fight with Cardinal Sodano the very day he resigned, he looked like he’d seen a ghost in his announcement, and the hearers, rather than the usual “let’s pretend we didn’t know” attitude just sat there in their seats positively stunned – except perhaps the one he fought with – Sodano. Look ANYone who fights Sodano, the Vatican connection to Roberto Calvi and Immobiliari mobsters and Pinochet’s hatchet men has my sympathy. But two parties only? I would venture to say there are at least three major groups of sympathy – pre-Vatican II Rad Trads, Vatican II – EWTN Pro-Magisterium Centrists, and post-Vatican II “Sandalista” innovators empowered by the lib-left “consensus media.”

    I would therefore venture to surmise that it is a good bet that Benedict is trying to prevent the ambition of the one New Age Church types (the modernists, who include a majority of bishops today) by setting up a “hermeutic of continuity” younger version of himself OR some pressure has come upon him that his days as pre-designated role of “transitional pope” are finished and he must go – And it could involve a bit of both – that both sides are motivated for a rumble.

    “I’d like more sir!” cried Oliver Twist!

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