Papal Retirement: A Matter of Conscience by Mary E. Hunt

Mary HuntThe unexpected announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is a welcome breath of fresh air. A human being, even a pope, ought to have the option to say enough is enough, I have done what I can do, and now it is time for someone else to take over. I applaud his move and read it as a sign of hope in a dreary ecclesial scene.

Speculation about his health is rampant. As with many elders whose offspring plot to take away the car keys, I suspect there was some backdoor lobbying to make this retirement happen. But I dare to hope that it was at least in part the considered judgment of an octogenarian who saw his predecessor propped up long after his prime and did not want the same for himself.

But before looking for the backstory there’s something in Benedict’s resignation statement that bears noting: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before 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.”

Conscience, Benedict reminds us today, is still primary for Catholics. Examination of conscience: that is just the formula millions of us use to explain why we use birth control, enjoy our sexuality in a variety of ways, and see enormous good in other religious traditions. Conscience is the ultimate arbiter, and the Pope relied on his. Good on him, and good on the rest of us.

There has been a lot of fudging on the matter of conscience in recent decades. The post-Vatican II hierarchy has claimed that conscience is primary if, and only if, it is informed as they see fit. But Pope Benedict XVI is giving conscience a new lease on life. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander—the appeal to conscience cannot be denied now that the Pope himself has had recourse to it.

Another takeaway: Just because a pope has not resigned since Gregory XII in 1415 does not mean it cannot be done. Nothing is forever. Much of what passes as “the way it is” in Rome is really just custom—like not ordaining women, claiming birth control to be a sin, regarding same-sex love as morally disordered, and the like. Customs change. Roman PR people say, “in the fullness of revelation such and such is now the case.” Then the new thing emerges as “the way it is” and life goes on. I fully expect the next pope to be cut out of the same cloth as this man, but there is no stopping the feeling that the pressure to change customs is simply overwhelming.

News reports of the papal announcement include the fact that many of the cardinals in the Consistory where Benedict XVI quietly dropped the news did not immediately understand his words because they were in Latin. A quick translation on their iPads surely rectified the situation. But it is fascinating to note that many of those 118 cardinals who will elect his successor are not competent enough in the ancient language to understand, “Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20, sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet et Conclave ad eligendum novum Summum Pontificem ab his quibus competit convocandum esse.” Quick translation: by month’s end I’m outta here and you need to elect a new person.

This does demystify the process a bit. Lesson learned: Latin is helpful but knowing how to push the translation button is another skill religious leaders need. More to the point, we need people who can listen and discern what is meant by words they do not understand coming from people they do not know. In our well-connected world the universal language is no longer Latin but listening.

What is news this time around is that rank and file Catholics want a new Church, not just a new pope.

We know that change is in the air because we put it there. Progressive Catholics all over the world are creating new forms of church since the old is so thoroughly discredited. No institution can withstand the onslaught of negative publicity that the Vatican earned over clergy sexual abuse and episcopal cover-ups without major changes. No hierarchy however fortified can hold out forever against spirit-filled steps toward equality and justice. This time, just electing a new pope will not do. Nor will closeting away a group of elite electors responsible to no one but themselves cut it for an election process.

Catholic people have consciences too. We expect to have a say in how we organize and govern ourselves. We cannot in conscience abdicate our authority to 118 mostly elderly men. Those days are over. If a pope can abdicate before he goes out feet first without the sky falling in then new egalitarian models of church can and will emerge too.

Even though knowledge of Latin is apparently no longer a required for leadership, we have a lot of people—women, married men, openly gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics—who are “ready and willing” to take on ministry and leadership. I know hundreds who are already actively involved in base communities, parishes, religious communities and social change groups doing a wonderful job of living new ways of being church. Some of them even know Latin.



What do you give to the Pope on the occasion of his retirement? I am sure he has more Rolex watches than he needs, and the red shoes he likes are out of my price range. But a new church would be just the thing to assure him a dignified old age. Instead of simply retiring quietly to Castel Gandolfo, if his health permits, Joseph Ratzinger might enjoy a good Bavarian beer with the rest of us as part of a renewed Church where all are welcome.

This article was originally posted on Religion Dispatches on February 11, 2013.


Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.


5 thoughts on “Papal Retirement: A Matter of Conscience by Mary E. Hunt”

  1. Blessed be, the church visible and invisible, I suppose, for now I suspect the church visible will elect another hierarchical patriarch, but as the future cannot be known (for sure) despite the fact that the college of cardinals has been packed with men thought to represent the church visible, maybe we will all be surprised. A girl can always hope…


  2. Thank you Mary!!! And my research on the biblical text might help people ease into some of those changes. Most of the biblical translators have also been male and knowingly or unknowingly they have altered texts having to do with gender. It is time to have a new look at those texts and what may have been the original intent of them.


  3. Mary, thank you for your take on what you think consciousness means. I don’t think that you need to take the word consciousness and try to change the Catholic Church based on it. The Catholic Church does not base its position on birth control homosexuality and women in the priesthood On anything less then biblical scripture. The Catholic Church cannot and will not change this or should I save the old elderly white man in the Catholic Church cannot and will not change this because they cannot change scripture. You state that you are a theologian and as a theologian you should know this better than anyone. Why you spread this false propaganda and reasoning to lead people off the path of righteousness is Beyond my understanding. The pope said he examined his conscience before God. Your reasoning should say the same thing that you examined your consciousness in relation to your behavior In life and your desires to change things about the church, in front of God if you did hopefully through that and prayer you would come to understand That your wants and desires are in conflict with scripture. Being that they would be in conflict with scripture that would probably make your behaviors and desires a sin. You can preach all day all you want to try to convince people and try to convince the Catholic Church that the Catholic Church needs to be changed to better reflect your wants and desires. That doesn’t make what you say and preach correct. The message of the Bible in other words the directions that the Bible gives us as sinners cannot be changed and will not be changed ever. That is the position of the Catholic Church so the Catholic Church cannot and will not change when it comes to Scripture. As a theologian you should put your efforts into studying this to better understand the Why the Catholic Church does what it does and Will not bend in any way shape or form.


  4. Dear ‘Incarnate’ Mary!
    Well, said. Dona nobis pacem!! It will be a new day, a new era, and yes, everything does change. Even in Paul’s day the Bible accepted slavery, which we all no longer accept because the ‘revelation’ that it is wrong and evil to subjugate another human being has been revealed to us. What is done can be undone, just as the rule of celibacy that I clamed in another blog that if a pope put the rule in place, then any other pope can rescind it.
    So a new Church is in the making now. However, I would beg to differ on which of the cardinals we need to fear. Those younger ones are the most conservative and many never knew Vat II. The white/grey-haired ones remember because they lived through it and helped frame it.
    Among the laity, there is a nostalgia for pre-Vat days among certain younger generation Catholics or those newly baptized. They are arch-conservatives that want to see nuns back in habits and to take communion on their tongues. Those are the ones we need to be watchful over and continue the feminist fight for equal justice in our Church. Otherwise we may all be dusting off our pre-Vat II Latin prayerbooks and watching the priests’ backs again!


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: