The papacy -- the job of a lifetime but not a lifetime job
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has announced that he is stepping down at the end of the year to return to academic life. Williams is 61. Meanwhile, another professor turned prelate, Pope Benedict XVI, remains in office at the age of 84. A lot of Catholics would find nothing notable about this comparison: Popes rule until they die, bishops (including the spiritual head of the Church of England) can resign without shaking the spiritual firmament.
There are differences, of course. The archbishop of Canterbury lacks the ultimate authority exercised by the pope, and the existence of one or more former primates of all England doesn't undermine the influence of the current incumbent in a church that, in any case, is more democratic in its structure than the Roman Catholic Church. Given the unique ethos of the papacy, an ex-pope -- especially one who was relatively young and continued to appear in public -- could be a distraction, even a "scandal" (as the term is used in Catholicism). Still, Benedict is very old and has shown signs of frailness. If he were to resign, he likely would withdraw to a (perhaps literally) monastic existence.
Contrary to what a lot of Catholics believe, the papacy is not necessarily a lifetime office. The Code of Canon Law treats the question rather matter of factly: "If it happens that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone."
The pope is a bishop, not a king. Other Catholic bishops turn in their resignations at the age of 75. There is no theological reason why the bishop of Rome couldn't do the same, before he was too impaired to perform his duties.
Photo: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is shown waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to arrive for their meeting at Lambeth Palace in London, England on Sept. 17, 2010.Credit: Claudio Onorati / EPA