This piece is from June 4 2015.
If the head master of an English public school addressed Common Room and angrily listed the seventeen ways in which its members were corrupt, and did it just before Christmas [as the Pope did to the Curia in 2014], something would happen. The Governing Body would know about it within hours ... because there always seem to be members of Common Room who are on easy social terms with members of the Governing Body. So, sometime in January, two or three senior members of the Governing Body would be detailed to have a private, completely friendly, unofficial and entirely off-the-record chat with the head master ... sort of ... er ... about How He Saw His Future. But, of course, the Catholic Church is not like an English public school.
Is it like a British governing party? Mrs Thatcher was a powerful prime minister. But, in the end, too many people felt that they had just about had enough. In were sent the Men in Grey Suits. Perhaps the one blow that most deeply wounded the Iron Lady was delivered by the very greyest of all the grey men who have ever lived, Geoffrey Howe; of whom some wit (Dennis Healey, I think) had averred that being attacked by him was like being savaged by a dead sheep. Mercilessly, in a House of Commons where you could have heard a pin drop, he destroyed her with an elegant metaphor drawn from the game of cricket. Within weeks, she was History.
What, of course, has made the Papacy different from both of those institutions is that the pope does not retire. He carries on until death. So, apart from murdering him ... a solution with "First Millennium" precedents ... there is no way of getting rid of him. He can't be manoeuvred into retiring. Strategies designed to isolate him, to put pressure on him, to plot against him, to ambush him, to stack up coalitions against him, simply don't make any practical sense. You just have to put up with him until Providence sends in the Grim Reaper. There are no men in grey suits, or greying cassocks, to put a friendly knife in.
Or rather, that is how things were until the abdication of Benedict XVI.
I do not think that the implications of his abdication have yet been fully recognised. Not since the Council of Constance had a living pope receded from the See of Rome. In 1415, the Council deposed the 'Pisan' pope John XXIII, and then accepted the resignation of the 'Roman' pope Gregory XII on 4 July. In 1417 it deposed the 'Avignon' pope Clement VIII, and elected Martin V. No subsequent pope has abdicated or been deposed. Since then, the assumption that the pope is a Given whom only God can loose from his pontificate, has, surely, been one of the most potent protections of each succeeding pontiff.
After Benedict's abdication, nothing can ever be the same again. No future pope can ever be as immovable as every pope was from Constance until Benedict.
Eventually, this will sink in. Eventually, popes will become as disposable as head masters and Mrs Thatcher.
And this implies a consequential loss of power; a vulnerability.
[I wonder if (I wouldn't put it past him) Pope Benedict XVI realised all this. I wonder if his abdication was his last and most masterly coup to undermine the post-Vatican II construct, against which he had so vigorously argued, of the Pope Who Can Do Anything, who is an Absolute Monarch; and to restore the Vatican I model of a strictly limited papacy with its limitations clearly and lucidly described.]