Should The Pope Step Down?

Benedict is facing pressure from many communities amid suspicion that he hasn't properly handled abuse cases within the Catholic Church. Commentator Kenneth Briggs says Benedict should step aside and ask for a full investigation, and only when his name is cleared should he return.

Kenneth Briggs writes for the National Catholic Reporter. He's a professor at Lafayette College and a former New York Times religion editor.

The predicament that surrounds Pope Benedict XVI has cast suspicion on his behavior without yet delivering a clear-cut verdict. The unanswered questions related to whether he covered up for priests who were child abusers are troubling enough to paralyze his papacy, even though the power of his office cannot be diminished. But he has been convicted of nothing. Fairness dictates that he remain pope until or unless he is judged guilty.

My proposal, therefore, is that Benedict take a leave of absence until his case is cleared one way or another. He should ask for a full investigation by both secular and church agencies and step aside until the results are in. If he fails to clear his name, he would be honor-bound to resign. A refusal to invite such tough scrutiny would be widely seen as admission of wrongdoing. Otherwise, he could return with a clean slate.

The church is fully capable of carrying on without a pope. The procedures in place when a pope dies could be expanded. Several popes have resigned — the last one being Gregory XII in 1415, for what he said was for the good of the church — and the church has muddled through each time. A leave of absence might cause far less disruption.

The current Vatican would likely resist openness with every fiber of its being. Secrecy has been considered the mode of operations by the ruling class of the church. To reverse this policy, by allowing investigators into these inner workings, is hardly imaginable. For the past 150 years, since the First Vatican Council declared the pope infallible in faith and morals, the Catholic hierarchy has run against the tide of history. While nations and institutions were toppling monarchical structures and embracing democracy, the church's hierarchy was enhancing its power and control. Papal infallibility elevated that office to new levels of influence and invested it with an image of moral perfection.

The enormity of this crisis could cause a radical departure that restores the papacy to its right size. That would require humility, a shedding of moral superiority, and a reforming of the hierarchical authority to include other constituents of the church. The intense secrecy would need to go.

A leave of absence could help clear the air and set the church's governance on a sounder, less elitist basis even as it allowed the pope a proper review. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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