Can the Pope resign?

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He is elected for life, by a group of elderly men infused with the will of God. People address him as Holy Father, not Mr. President. After bishop of Rome, his second title is vicar of Jesus Christ.

A smattering of voices suggest that Pope Benedict XVI can, and should, as outrage has built in recent weeks over clerical abuses in the Catholic Church. The calls — from some lay Catholics, bloggers, secular publications like the German magazine Der Spiegel and street protesters — have been fueled by reports that laid blame at his doorstep, citing his response both as a bishop long ago in Germany and as a cardinal heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles these cases. In the most recent disclosure, on Friday, the news emerged that in 1985, when Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he signed a letter putting off efforts to defrock a convicted child-molesting priest. He cited the priest’s relative youth but also the good of the church.

Vatican officials and experts who follow the papacy closely dismiss the idea of stepping down. “There is no objective motive to think in terms of resignation, absolutely no motive,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, in an interview before Friday’s disclosure. “It’s a completely unfounded idea.”...

Most analysts reject the possibility of resignation. “A lot of foreign newspapers are saying it, but the answer is absolutely no,” said Emma Fattorini, a professor of history at the University of Rome. “The church is not a party, a movement, a newspaper, a government.”

Of course, popes have resigned before — the last a mere 595 years ago, when Gregory XII stepped down to heal a schism. Before that, Celestine V, a fiercely ascetic former hermit who wore his temporal power heavily, resigned in 1294 (Dante consigned him to hell for cowardice, some interpreters of the “Inferno” believe)....

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