By James Tamba Lebbie
The announcement of Pope Benedict XVI on 11 February that he will resign on 28 February as head of the Roman Catholic Church has no doubt “thrust the Papacy into uncharted waters”. A papal resignation is unheard of in the contemporary history of the Papacy. History has it that the last papal resignation was some six hundred years ago. And that was Pope Gregory XII who was elected head of the Roman Catholic Church on 30 November 1406 but had to abdicate his position on 4 July 1415 (during the Council of Constance) under controversial circumstances.
The Council of Constance, the 16th ecumenical council recognized by the Catholic Church existed between 1414 and 1418. The main aim of the council was to resolve the papal schism which had resulted from the controversial election of Pope Urban VI. Historical sources say that election led to the defection of several cardinals and the election of a rival pope in 1378.
Eventually though, the Council of Constance ended the over thirty years of schism in the Catholic Church by deposing or accepting the resignation (depending on whose account of history one reads) of three popes – Gregory XII, Benedict XIII and John XXIII – all of whom made claim to the papacy simultaneously. A twenty-eight month interregnum followed the resignation of Pope Gregory XII during which a valid pope was never elected.
It took the election of Pope Martin V on 11 November 1417 to restore sanity to the Catholic Church. And since the abdication of Pope Gregory XII in 1415, the Roman Catholic Church has never been faced with a situation where a pontiff has to resign. Therefore, a papal resignation in the twenty-first century must have shocked Catholics all over the world even if some observers say they were not surprised.
From historical accounts, we know that the resignation of Pope Gregory XII was as a result of the divisions and controversies that characterized the Catholic Church for over three decades. In the case of Pope Benedict XVI, he cited age and poor health (physically and mentally) for his resignation as Bishop of Rome. And given his age (85 years) and frailty, such an excuse sounds credible for public consumption, even if the decision to resign can be regarded as a very progressive act done by a very conservative pontiff. But an article in the Guardian by Peter Stanford on 15 February 2013 caught my attention. In it, Stanford points to many conspiracy theories that came in the wake of “the ecclesiastical earthquake” of a pope’s resignation. According to Standford, the decision “has been attributed, variously, to Benedict nursing a fatal illness; to a head injury during his trip to Mexico last March that convinced him to abdicate; to being forced out after an acrimonious meeting with a group of senior cardinals two days before he announced his resignation; to his looming disgrace over either dodgy deals done by the Vatican Bank, past cover-ups of paedophile priests, or an “explosive” forthcoming report by a team of cardinals on a tendering scandal; and to a strategy to secure the succession for his favorite”. But the pope has publicly ruled out interfering in the election of his successor as “chief executive of a multinational church of 1.3 billion souls”. This means a dismissal of the last theory that the pope’s resignation was a strategy to have his favorite as a successor.
But Stanford’s insinuation on a papal palace coup should not altogether be dismissed if indeed there was an “acrimonious meeting with a group of senior cardinals two days before” the pope announced his resignation. A pointer to his allusion was a statement made by the pontiff in his farewell mass on Ash Wednesday at the Saint Peter’s Basilica where he appealed to the Church to move beyond “individualism and rivalry”. Standford wonders whether such an admonition could be “the coded final words of a deposed pope”.
In any case, as the world waits anxiously for the election of the 266th pontiff as Bishop of Rome by a conclave of about 120 cardinals, Catholics around the world should pray fervently that the virus of another schism – most likely fuelled by individualism and rivalry and which the out-going pope has warned about in his Ash Wednesday farewell mass – plaguing the Catholic Church in Makeni does not affect the Vatican.
And my analogy, even if regarded as cynical is borne out of what we are witnessing today in Sierra Leone. Over a year now, a group of some rebellious priests backed by their lay faithful in the Diocese of Makeni have so far refused to accept an appointed priest (who subsequently had been ordained bishop) as Bishop of Makeni ostensibly on the grounds of his ethnic and regional background even if that has been denied publicly.
Instead, the laity in Makeni issued a letter in which they pointed to a number of perceived imbalances including but not limited to the absence of a local representative from the Catholic Church in Makeni to have held a senior position of the rank of a bishop for the past fifty years even though there are many qualified and competent priests within the diocese; the omission of geopolitical considerations in the appointment of Monsignor Aruna as Bishop of Makeni; and the lack of diversity in the church in the sense that the composition of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Sierra Leone is everything but diverse.
And if these arguments by priests and laity in the Diocese of Makeni over the lack of geopolitical considerations and under-representation in the church are anything to go by, then the history of the Vatican in general and the papacy in particular can be described as an historical injustice for Catholics in Continents like Africa, Asia and Latin America. This is because since the inception of the papacy, Italians have dominated the Vatican. For instance, it is believed that the Vatican took some four hundred years before it could elect the first non-Italian pope. And the Italians have dominated the papacy since then. The last Italian pope was John Paul I, who reigned for only 33 days and died on 28 September 1978. His successors have been two pontiffs from Europe – Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla of Poland as Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger of Germany as Pope Benedict XVI.
Meanwhile, of the 265 elected pontiffs as Bishop of Rome, African has produced only two. Those were Miltiades as the 32nd pontiff in the fourth century and Gelasius as the 49th pontiff in the fifth century. Asia and Latin America have produced none. And yet, Latin America is arguably the sub-continent with largest growth rate of Catholic worshippers in the world.
This analysis goes for the papacy, which is the office of the pope and the Holy See, which is the episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome as well as the Vatican City State, which came into existence on 11 February, 1929 following the signing of the Lateran Pacts between the Holy See and Italy. The Vatican unlike the papacy has a governorate structure that is administered by a president, secretary-general and a president emeritus. All of them currently are Italians and historically, the governorate has been dominated by the Italians.
Despite these geo-political imbalances and under representation of other continents in a power structure that governs about 1.3 billion Catholics all over the world, other continents other than Europe have not rebelled in modern times against the papacy and the Vatican.
Let our Catholic brothers in Makeni accept the fact that the Church is universal as they made some of us to believe and move on. After all, a friend once told me that Jesus was born a Jew but the current pope is a German.