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The First Pope to Resign, Case Study Example

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Case Study

Introduction

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, occurring at the close of February, 2013, is not the first occasion in which a pope has voluntarily stepped down from the exalted office.  It is, however, the first such resignation to take place since 1415, when Gregory XII left the papacy voluntarily (Cullinane, 2013).  This alone renders the action momentous, as it highlights the extraordinary duration of the papacy and the consistent manner in which the sacred office has been held for thousands of years.  The Catholic world, consequently, is accustomed to only death as vacating the office, which emphasizes the unique attributes of it.  The pope is the spiritual leader for billions globally and, if the Catholic Church has weathered some severe storms in modern history, the incalculable  impact of the role remains very much in place.   This singular event, then, has enormous meaning in sociological, psychological terms, and for the entire world.

In the following, the various effects of the pope’s resignation will be explored.  This necessarily entails an acknowledgment of how the papacy affects societies on both cultural and international levels; how Catholicism has evolved as a spiritual and psychological foundation in the lives of billions of adherents; and, ultimately, what challenges to the faith and to the faithful such an action creates.  Within the latter, particularly, will be opportunities to more fully comprehend precisely how the papacy influences the psychology of Catholics, with ancillary perspectives on the influences to societies and individuals in general.  Given the novelty of Benedict’s action, much of the social and psychological examination as to effects must be speculative.  Nonetheless, the first resignation of a pope since the Middle Ages will provide a lens through which a vast variety of social and psychological concerns may be observed and analyzed.

Circumstance and Immediate Consequences

As noted, Pope Benedict XVI officially resigned the papacy, an act unprecedented in several ways.  No other pope had ever left office voluntarily on the grounds of weakening health, and only one other, Celestine V, may be said to have vacated the office of his own free will.  Holding the title for only five months and unwilling to assume the many administrative functions of the office, Celestine stepped down in 1294  (Bornstein,  2013).  Certainly, the papacy has been marked by difficulties arising in determining elections when a pope dies, but death is consistently the only avenue by which the office is left.  As will be examined, this factor alone has immense consequences for the social, cultural, and psychological ramifications of Benedict’s resignation.

For weeks, high Church officials convened in Rome, nominating and discussing various candidates for the office.  Ultimately chosen by the College of Cardinals was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian Cardinal of Italian descent.  Bergoglio has assumed the name of Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, and is already making his presence felt internationally.  He has already made clear his support of conservative Catholic policy and doctrine, as he has criticized nuns in the U.S. for embracing social ideas regarding birth control and marriage not in keeping with his view of how Catholicism should be expressed to the people (Kington,  2013).  At the same time, Francis has already been hailed by Catholics as a champion of the people, and a pope who will more fully realize the Church’s obligation to enlighten and inspire the masses.

It may thus be seen that the immediate consequences of Benedict’s resignation were profoundly impactful, and on a global level.  Billions of Catholics worldwide, no matter their views of Benedict’s papacy, were suddenly placed in the position of anticipating a new and unknown spiritual leader.  It is reasonable to assume that Catholics placed their trust in the ability of the College of Cardinals to elect a worthy pontiff, as the history of the papacy indicates a relatively unbroken line of such processes.  Nonetheless, and ignoring any other dimensions of the resignation, Catholics were compelled to accept that a known pope was going and a new presence would be assuming authority.  That this authority is largely spiritual goes to the enormity of the interim period.  In essence, the pope is the ultimate example of a charismatic leader, regardless of the individual’s own charismatic character.  More exactly, the charisma is attached to the leader by the adherents; as they perceive in him the link to the highest orders of the faith, he then takes on the attributes that motivate in charismatic terms.  Leaders of other kinds may be temporarily absent, and even in cases of enormous numbers of adherents, without excessive turmoil resulting.  When the charismatic leader in the form of the pope is no longer in place, and even as this is known to be a temporary matter, the psychological repercussions must be startling.  Essentially, and as was evidenced within the weeks prior to Francis’s election, untold numbers of Catholics virtually held their breath.

This tension, inherently sociological given the extent of Catholicism, is not entirely due to apprehensions regarding the nature and policies of the new leader.  Rather, it is an inevitable result of a needed presence no longer there.  Just how the interim period between popes had impact on the perceptions of Catholics may be seen by turning to a cultural extreme related to religion: cults.  There are basic similarities to be observed, the first of which is that, like the pope, the cult leader creates a field of charismatic leadership so influential, other considerations or forms of authority become secondary.  The key here, as with Catholicism, is spirituality; the followers are present because the leader supplies a direction that is to them visceral, and beyond any other in terms of importance.  The cult leader absolutely relies on a charismatic claim, as does the pope.  With cults, it is more usual that the leader actually embody charisma in their being, which then translates to the adherents as evidence of the spirituality they seek.  Nonetheless, the effects go to the same result, which is that a group is implacably driven to obey a single voice of authority (Lundskow, 2008,  p. 293).  Consequently, when that figure is removed for any reason, confusion must follow.  As has been amply reported, the recent election of Francis generated international fascination, a fascination at least partially fueled by the anxiety of Catholics.  It is, in fact, interesting to observe that, as Pope Francis begins his papacy with some controversy, there remains a sense of appeasement within the international Catholic community.  In plain terms, this must be the case, as a vacuum of spiritual leadership of the most globally influential kind has been filled.

Other Impacts and Issues

Given the acknowledged population of Catholics as vast, it is necessary to examine Pope Benedict’s resignation from a variety of different social and psychological perspectives.  Much of this is necessarily conjecture, as it is generalized.  Nonetheless, as the role of the pope is so clearly meaningful to so many, the application of certain principles is correct.  To begin with, there is the matter of identity, a principle intrinsically both psychological and social.  For the Catholic, identity is very much centered on a definition of the self as a Catholic, which then translates to adherence to both papal authority and to the tenets of the faith.  In modern times, the social component to this identity has undergone challenges.  More exactly, as there has been a lessening of a communal sense of identity within Catholic communities in the U.S., there has then been a greater emphasis placed on finding that sense of identity at the center of it all: the Vatican and the pope.  Moreover, Catholic identity is inextricably linked to a specific Catholic culture, long established through centuries of social, political, and artistic evolution (Seasoltz, 2005,  p. 52).  There can be no overstating of how complex this identity is, as the spiritual core is affirmed by the temporal observances of doctrine and, ultimately, papal authority.

The mere fact of Benedict’s resignation, then, could only create distress in terms of how Catholics perceived their own identities, both as individuals and socially.  It is inescapable that the office of the pope is singular, if only in regard to its tradition of being a sacred and lifelong trust fulfilling an obligation to the Church and its people.  This is not, in other words, a leadership position vacated voluntarily, as the office itself is defined by devout commitment shared by the adherents.  It is reasonable to assume that many Catholics understood Benedict’s reasoning behind his resignation, in that the demands of the role exceeded what his health could provide.  Both Benedict and the church made it clear that no disease was generating the action; rather, the pope simply perceived himself as unable to carry out the duties of so crucial a ministry (Cullinane,  2013).  This is, again, perfectly reasonable.  A sense of identity as within Catholics, however, is not necessarily assuaged by reason.  We may, Catholic or otherwise, have no issues with resignations of other leaders, but this acceptance occurs because the resignation does not challenge the basic tenets of our sense of identity.  It is virtually formulaic in this instance: the Catholic believes devoutly in the Church, the pop represents the highest authority in that Church, the pope then represents the ultimate form of the devotion,  so the pope who vacates the office is in some sense abandoning the Church.  To the Catholic, the role of the pope must be perceived as one not admitting to such choice because it is, the physical demands notwithstanding, a full commitment of spiritual being.  Benedict’s resignation, then, must have dramatically called into question Catholic senses of identity worldwide.

It may also be argued that the papal resignation affected Catholics in another psychological arena, that of control.  It is certainly well known that the Church has undergone immense challenges in the last few decades, if not longer.  Even many devout Catholics take issue with Church doctrine, and regret that the offices representing their faith insist on policies and social behaviors they view as not necessarily Christian, and not in keeping with the cultural and societal changes that have occurred internationally.  At the same time, there remains the fact that, as embraced by most Catholics, the pope represents vast power socially and politically.  This then relates to feelings of control, and particularly when a pope chooses to relinquish his own control.  Control, of course, is a mutable property and one subject to degree and interpretation.  On a basic level, however, it is accepted that people typically seek to be able to predict, and consequently control, what affects them.  Religion plays a significant part here, in that foundations of belief regarding the most impactful of affects, such as birth and death, enable feelings of mastery over them (Hood, Hill, & Spilka,  2009,  p. 17).  Put another way, if the religious individual cannot literally control the circumstances, the belief that they are understood provides the sense of control.

With the resignation of the pope, then, comes challenges to control, and in more than one way.  To begin with, the individual’s sense of control must be thwarted, as with the sense of identity, by the voluntary discarding of that which is prized by the individual: in this case, the control that arises from absolute faith and commitment.  The leader is setting it aside, in plain terms, so the adherent must question the validity of their own basis for control.  On another, and interestingly, control is often interpreted as meaning self-control, and this has particular importance to the subject.  Most religions encourage self-control as a means of attaining virtue (Hood, Hill, & Spilka,  2009,  p. 18), and Catholicism in particular emphasizes its importance.  Self-control is built into the framework of the faith itself.  This being the case, it is virtually unfathomable to the Catholic that the anointed leader of the faith should lack the self-control to fulfill his duties, which is a likely conclusion reached by a catholic under these circumstances.  The Church consistently exhorts its followers to practice self-control because it is difficult, and is something of a test of human quality.  This often means carrying on in the face of great adversity.  Benedict, however, may well be seen as incapable of living up to this critical obligation.  His perceived lack of self-control, then, must further threaten the senses of control in the adherents.

Lastly, Benedict’s leaving of the papacy has impact in regard to the socialization aspect of all religion.  Socialization here occurs on multiple levels; the believer, in this case the Catholic, may be informed as to faith by personal preference, or at least make some conscious and independent choice in belonging.  What more usually occurs, however, is that a variety of highly influential agents act to promote the faith already maintained in the individual’s environment.  A perspective based on socialization itself is then valid; family, peers, friends, and spouses promote the social goods they themselves prefer, which then powerfully influences the individual.  As the individual accepts the religion through the socialization process, both components are strengthened (Dillon,  2003,  p. 152).   What is accepted by the majority then becomes routine and familiar, and the faith is further substantiated by consistent exercise of forms.  In the Catholic Church, as with most other denominations, these forms rely heavily on social interaction.  People gather to share in common ideas and beliefs, and the gathering itself, even under ritualized circumstances, reinforces the motives and provides the pleasure of communal interaction.

Central to these processes is the presence of the core of the motive or, more plainly, the highest authority giving meaning to the activity socially and spiritually: the pope.  If senses of identity and control are drastically challenged when a pope chooses to resign, so is the fabric of the socialization threatened.  Socialization processes as stemming from shared religious beliefs may well have a “life of their own,” and be turned to, at least in part, simply because they become fixtures of social activity for the individual and the community.  When the central figure vacates his office, however,  there must occur the disturbance to the social arena that takes place whenever a leader is absent.  It is not necessary that the leader be seen or heard directly; what matters is that, for the group, his presence is acknowledged as existing and implacable.  This is, moreover, emphatically the case with the pope’s role, as history supports.  Over long centuries, the Church gained in power through a consistent interaction with all social organizations surrounding it, as the papal leadership became then more fixed (Riccards, 2012,  p. 597).  It is, then, virtually impossible to estimate the weight of this leadership impact in terms of how its voluntary absence would affect socialization.  It is, nonetheless, reasonable to assume that Benedict’s resignation powerfully altered the social component of the Catholic Church for many,

if only in removing a consistently present manifestation of integrity and leadership.  Again, and as with issues of identity and control, the voluntary departure of Benedict from his unique position certainly disrupted the foundations of Church socialization.  Catholics, in plain terms, were denied their central leadership in a manner inevitably suggesting to them vulnerabilities in the faith never before considered.

Conclusion

Given the unprecedented nature of Pope Benedict’s resignation and how recently it occurred, it is likely that the effects of it on the Catholic community will not be fully appreciated for some time.  Then, the election of Francis certainly must address concerns created by the resignation.  For those weeks, however, when billions of Catholics lacked the presence of their spiritual leader, it seems probable that extreme disturbances resulted in psychological and social terms.  That a pope, consecrated for life to service to God and the community, could voluntarily vacate his office must have generated questions of identity within Catholics, as well as concerns regarding control.  This factor of control, moreover, is both spiritual and temporal, in that the vacancy weakens the structure of the Church, and its voluntary nature suggests weaknesses in both pope and, consequently, the faith itself.  Linked to these elements is the incalculable factor of how socialization, so crucial to all religious communities, was threatened.  What is clear beyond conjecture, however,  is that Pope Benedict’s resignation created impacts on the Catholic world, and thus the world at large, beyond those of the strictly spiritual.

References

Bornstein, D.  (2013).   A Brief History of Papal Resignations.  Religion and Politics.  Retrieved           from http://religionandpolitics.org/2013/02/24/a-brief-history-of-papal-resignations/

Cullinane, S.  (2013).  “Pope Benedict XVII’s Resignation Explained.”  CNN.  Retrieved from

http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/11/world/europe/pope-resignation-q-and-a

Dillon, M. (2003).  Handbook of the Sociology of Religion.  New York: Cambridge University   Press.

Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B.  (2009).  The Psychology of Religion, Fourth Edition: An Empirical Approach.  New York: Guilford Press.

Kington, T.  (2013).  “Pope Francis Reaffirms Crackdown on U.S. Nuns.”  The Los Angeles       Times.  Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/15/world/la-fg-pope-nuns-20130416

Lundskow, G.  (2008).  The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach.  Thousand Oak: Pine Forge Press.

Riccards, M. P.  (2012).  Faith and Leadership: The Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church.    Lanham: Lexington Books.

Seasoltz, K. (2005).  A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture

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