As you know by now, Pope Benedict XVI has resigned effective February 28. His Holiness deserves praise for applying his judgment and extraordinary intellect to the dilemma he now faces. The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has decided that his health will not permit him to perform the duties entailed in his demanding job. Wisely and, it seems to me, morally the right thing, he has made the needs of his flock more important than thousands of years of tradition or any sense that he should play out the hand that God gave him. He has done “what Jesus would do.”
There is a larger question being introduced by the pope’s choice: that being the propriety of thoughtful action when such action would seem to be contradictory to the assumed will of God, or the capriciousness of fate. In several areas of Christian life, the church has deemed—indeed commanded—that God’s will be followed despite whatever suffering or social harm might result.
It is true that such dogma is set forth with the best of intentions and good will. The church believes that a loving God would not consign someone to die a horrible death if He did not have a good reason, or was not planning to reward their suffering in the hereafter. Such thinking considers suicide, even euthanasia, a sin. Such a philosophy also compels some to think that a woman who has been raped, or whose life is in danger, should similarly submit to God’s will. And while abortion itself is a fair and debatable moral question, it is difficult to believe that a newly united sperm and egg only a few days or hours old is a person.
Indeed, we have been left the use our own wisdom and intellect to make such decisions for legal and moral purposes. The abortion debate itself will continue, and there are no easy answers. There is much to respect on all sides of this debate, and the purpose of this piece is not to enter that argument at this time. Rather it is to present a cause for serious thought about when and where the church might allow more serious consideration whenever issues of life or death of an individual or the good of society is at stake, just as the pope has now done.
Again, much of the existing thought in the church is based on what it believes is best. Divorce is not permitted because “what God has joined” etc. and because it destroys the family. In my heart, I agree with the Church that society is hurt by broken marriages and the pain it causes children. Yet there can be no good reason for a marriage to stay together where cruelty and heartbreak are the norm for couples and children alike. More thought needs to be given to this subject.
But yet I am encouraged by the heroic decision of Benedict to use reason and thoughtfulness to make the decision he has made. As well, the reception of the pontiff’s announcement has been equally encouraging. Little has been said so far about the pope’s debilitating health being the will of God which, if one is a believer, they must completely accept as so.
It is my hope that the pope has opened the door for future leaders of the church, which has done so much good in the world, to employ their reason and judgment in the face of antiquated dogma—to do the right and sensible thing when such a choice is better for society and the individual.
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