VATICAN CITY — Seven years have passed since Benedict XVI’s resignation but discussion over the precise role of a “Pope Emeritus” and the permitted extent of his influence has not only continued but increased in intensity.
Polemics over this contentious issue came to a head in January after Benedict XVI’s unexpected intervention a month before the release of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia.
The Pope Emeritus and Cardinal Robert Sarah had written essays on the nature of the priesthood in the book From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, strongly affirming mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Church.
The publication prompted a storm of criticism largely derived from the book’s timing: Francis was widely expected in his exhortation to allow the ordination of some married men in remote Amazon regions, and From the Depths of Our Hearts appeared to be an attempt to thwart such a move which, it was feared, could undermine the Latin rite discipline of priestly celibacy universally.
Although figures close to the Pope have insisted the door remains open to the possibility, the Holy Father appeared in the end to hold off from making such a change in Querida Amazonia, at least explicitly, leading some to believe that the book was effective in protecting the priestly celibacy rule. (The Vatican implicitly denied this, saying the document was already completed on Dec. 27, except for marginal style and translation changes).
Though many welcomed the positive influence the book might have made on protecting safeguarding clerical celibacy, the episode reignited questions over whether a former Pope should be allowed to make such statements that impact his successor’s pontificate.
It has also sparked debate over whether rules should be implemented to define the precise role of a Pope Emeritus, and highlighted a related question increasingly heard in Rome: whether Benedict has, in fact, fully resigned the Petrine Office.
Aside from the controversy over whether Benedict was aware of his precise involvement in the book (Cardinal Sarah strongly asserted that he was), Benedict’s contribution to it was not the first time he had broken a rule he imposed on himself at his resignation: to serve the Church in silence, “hidden from the world” and “dedicated to prayer.”
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a vocal critic of Benedict’s resignation, lamented the “many times” the former Pope has contravened that rule by making speeches, writing letters and giving occasional interviews. Benedict wished to retire “to pray in silence,” Cardinal Brandmüller said. “It was never going to happen.”
“This is why I am so angry,” he said, “and this is what destroys so much.”
“He had no idea what would happen”
At the root of Cardinal Brandmüller’s frustration is that the office Benedict created for himself after his resignation — that of Pope Emeritus — is totally new, created quickly and with little apparent regard for its possible consequences.
“He had no idea what would happen,” the 91-year old Church historian said. The German cardinal, who served as president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences under Benedict, stressed that the institution of Pope Emeritus “doesn’t exist in all of Church history and in canon law.”
The cardinal puts these oversights largely down to Benedict’s lack of consultation, saying “even Celestine V,” the last Pope to have resigned the papacy, “consulted the cardinals before he resigned” but Benedict made the decision “practically alone” — an omission, he believes, which showed “disdain” for the College of Cardinals.
Other senior Vatican sources have said that between Benedict’s announcement of his resignation on Feb. 11, 2013, and his departure from the apostolic palace three weeks later, a number of cardinals pressed Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then Vatican Secretary of State, to clarify the canonical status of an abdicated pope as they saw it could be “potentially problematic,” but “nothing was done.”
The concern now, according to some senior prelates, is that Benedict appears to think he somehow has a papal role, even if he believes he has fully renounced the papacy.
This confusion has been aggravated externally through Benedict’s adherence to some of the trappings of the papacy: his decision to wear white, to refer to himself as His Holiness, to impart his apostolic blessing, and his use of the title “Pope Emeritus.”
But more importantly, questions hinge on comments Benedict and others have made over whether he has fully abdicated the ministerium (active ministry) of the Successor of Peter but not the papal munus (office) — a bifurcation which canonists and theologians say is impossible.
This concept of a kind of split Benedict-Francis papacy has a number of origins, most notably comments Benedict himself made during his last general audience on Feb. 27, 2013.
In his discourse, he said that after his election as Pope in 2005, he was “engaged always and forever by the Lord” and so could never return to the “private sphere.” Other similar comments include Benedict’s words to Peter Seewald in the 2017 book Last Testament in which he said his resignation “was not one of taking flight” but “precisely another way of remaining faithful to my ministry.”
Benedict’s personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein also considerably fueled the debate in 2016 by telling a Rome conference that Benedict had “not at all abandoned this ministry” of pope but instead de facto “expanded” it with a “quasi-shared ministry” that consisted of “an active member and a contemplative member.”
Archbishop Gänswein has since said his words, which many believe must have been cleared beforehand by Benedict or perhaps had been even written by him, were misunderstood. “There is only one Pope, one legitimately elected and incumbent Pope, and that is Francis. Amen,” he said last year.
But despite Archbishop Gänswein’s wish that the debate would end, it has continued, and doubts about the resignation have broadened.
Inner Responsibility Remains?
Professor Edmund Mazza, a Catholic author and broadcaster, has pointed out that in Last Testament, Benedict made the point in relation to the papacy that a “father does not stop being a father” even if “relieved of concrete responsibility.” He remains “in an inner sense within the responsibility he took on, but not in the function,” Benedict said.
Mazza then related these comments to a talk Joseph Ratzinger gave in 1977, entitled The Primacy of the Pope and the Unity of the People of God, in which the future Pope argued that the institution of the papacy “can exist only as a person and in particular and personal responsibility,” and that he “abides in obedience and thus in personal responsibility for Christ.”
“For Benedict, ‘personal responsibility’ is the essence of what it means to be pope,” Mazza wrote in an essay entitled Resigned to the Papacy: Is Benedict Still Pope? and he proposed that Benedict believes such a “moral responsibility” cannot be renounced, based on the fact that in his Last Testament interview Benedict said a pope “remains in an inner sense within the responsibility” even if the “functions” are relinquished.
A further study currently circulating in Rome is that by Italian deacon and scientist Liberato De Caro, a researcher at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche-Istituto di Cristallografia in Bari.
Noting that Benedict has preferred to leave his status “unregulated,” De Caro argues that the title “Pope Emeritus” is, in itself, of concern as it “involves a sort of split between the primatial office of the Pope and that of the Bishop of Rome” — a division which, because those aspects of the papacy are “united in the one person of the Roman Pontiff,” presents “inevitable legal-theological implications.”
De Caro is not the first to question the Pope Emeritus title: Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, also expressed reservations, saying in 2017 it “theologically creates more problems than solving them.”
But whereas Archbishop Fisichella recognizes the validity of the resignation, De Caro goes a step further, asking whether a pope could legitimately create ex nihilo (out of nothing) such an unprecedented figure as a Pope Emeritus. He believes this “would not be possible” because it would “touch on divine law” given that the institution of the papacy is “of direct divine creation.”
To imply the papal office is by its very nature divisible, and that it us up to “human willingness to choose which faculties to renounce and which to maintain, is in blatant violation of divine law,” De Caro writes in an essay of “brief reflections” on the “emeritus papacy.” He concludes, therefore, that the Benedict’s resignation is invalid as it is “contrary to divine law itself.”
Others have proposed similar arguments and questioned how, through his resignation, a pope could unilaterally alter, or appear to alter, the papacy which is a divinely instituted monarchy with full and universal power. They quote in particular canon 188, which states that a resignation made out of “substantial error” would be “invalid by the law itself.”
In 2018, Msgr. Nicola Bux, a former consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and for the Congregation of Saints, was concerned enough about the possible basis for this seeming diarchy within the papacy that he called for a juridical and historical investigation into the validity of Benedict’s resignation.
Now he believes the fracas over the Cardinal Sarah-Benedict book has highlighted how the “institution” of Pope Emeritus — and an apparent bifurcation it implies between the Pope’s active and passive ministry — is “harmful to the unity of the Church” and demands a resolution.
An Authentic Monstrum
The papal office cannot be “divisible into functions (active and passive) which could be renounced separately,” Msgr. Bux said on Feb. 5. Such an idea, he believes, makes Benedict’s resignation an “authentic monstrum [monstrosity, unnatural event].”
He added that canonist friends of his are “firmly convinced” of the invalidity of the resignation based on the traditional canonical axiom, “doubtful resignation, no resignation” — a reference to St. Robert Bellarmine’s assertion that “a doubtful Pope is no Pope” if a “papal election is doubtful for any reason.”
But such doubts are rejected by theologians and others after having assessed the arguments. John Salza, a Catholic apologist and co-author of the book True or False Pope, argues that the resignation is valid principally on the basis of the doctrine of universal and peaceful acceptance of a Pope. This provides “infallible certainty” that Christ “severed the bond between Benedict and the papacy in order make Francis Pope,” he said Feb. 25.
Any doubts about the resignation, Salza added, are “irrelevant because Francis was universally and peacefully accepted as Pope immediately following his election, by the entire episcopacy and a moral unanimity of the faithful.”
But he agrees with others who see Benedict’s actions after his resignation as problematic and causing confusion.
A priest theologian speaking on condition of anonymity and drawing on commentary on ancient canon law regarding resignations, (in particular M. Thériault, “De actibus juridici,” in A. Marzo et al. Comentario exegético al código de Derecho Canónico, 3a ed), said that if Benedict believed the munus and ministerium were not the same thing, “he would have to clearly say so within the resignation itself.”
But Benedict “did not distinguish clearly between them in the renunciation, nor did he include conditions, such as ‘I resign as acting Pope, provided I can be a ‘contemplative Pope.’” Rather, he stated, “’the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked.’”
Both the theologian and Salza argue that even if Benedict believed he was still Pope, that would be a matter of the internal forum, and “the Church does not judge internals.” “In the external forum, he did everything that was required for a valid resignation,” Salza said, and we have certainty of this because Francis has been peacefully and universally accepted as Pope.”
Furthermore, the theologian said no resignation requires “complete understanding, or even orthodoxy, regarding what is being resigned” for it to be valid, merely that the one resigning intend to resign the “substance of his position” — papal governance and jurisdiction. He also said by Benedict using the term emeritus, it is a “significant sign” he has fully renounced the papacy as canon 185 indicates that the title is given to a bishop “only when he has validly resigned, or lost office in some other way.” Thus, he said, Benedict could not be ‘Pope Emeritus’ “unless he resigned.”
Cardinal Brandmüller, even though he has been a critic of the resignation, similarly accepts its validity and firmly rejects the hypothesis of the Petrine Office being divisible, saying he believes Francis is Pope as there can only be “one Pope,” inseparable in his unity and in his power — a thesis he presented in a 2016 canonical and historical essay in the Italian journal Archivio Giuridico.
For him, the roots of the problem date back to 18th century France and the beginning of ultramontanism (the view that the Pope has absolute, boundless power) and particularly the long pontificate of Pope Pius IX when a metaphysical view of the papacy began to take root — a view which he believes Archbishop Gänswein (according to his 2016 speech) and others appear to support. “The institution of the Pope Emeritus is the last expression of such papalism,” he said.
Such a metaphysical conception of the papacy that gives it a sacramental character is believed to be behind the notion that a pope could renounce his active ministry but keep the munus. The theory was put forward by heterodox German theologian Karl Rahner, even before Pope St. Paul VI instituted the episcopal emeritus (until that time, bishops did not retire and become emeriti).
Papacy Juridical, Not Sacramental
In his 1964 book The Episcopate in the Church (L’ episcopato nella Chiesa), Rahner claimed a pope could resign the juridical aspect of the papacy but not what relates to its indelible character, or what he called its “sacramental nature.” Without evidence, De Caro claims this theory, relaunched in 1974 by the heterodox School of Bologna, is one that Benedict, who was once a friend of Rahner, “wanted to follow.”
But Rahner’s theory is rejected by, among others, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“The phrase ‘renunciation of the exercise of the ministry of Peter’ does not mean that the election to the office of Bishop of Rome is a sacramental consecration which confers an indelible character,” he said on Jan. 29. “He is not, therefore, like a bishop emeritus who retains all the sacramental muneragiven with episcopal ordination, but renounces the exercise of jurisdiction in his diocese.”
Further stressing the non-sacramental nature of the papacy, he added that on the level of ordination, a pope is “only a bishop” and does not have any level of consecration higher than that. A pope, he said, retains the munera of a bishop, but in “renouncing this papal office, he loses primatial powers completely.” Hence, in renunciation the ministry, Benedict renounced what was proper to the papal office.
Italian Church historian Professor Roberto de Mattei agrees with Cardinal Müller, saying that the papacy, “despite its divine institution, is of a juridical nature: it is not a sacrament, it is an office.” He therefore firmly believes there is “only one pope, one Vicar of Christ and it is he who governs the Church. Today he is Pope Francis.” He also believes any “grace of state” is linked to the Petrine office, and that Benedict XVI lost that, too, “by renouncing the office.”
De Mattei, who is president of the traditional Catholic Lepanto Foundation, said the attempt to “redefine the munus petrinum was born in progressive circles that have wanted to de-institutionalize the Church, giving the Pope a charismatic rather than juridical role.” As well as Rahner, this was a theory further supported by dissident theologian Hans Küng, also a former friend of Benedict. For this reason, De Mattei believes those who “defend the tradition of the Church must strongly reject this error.”
And yet due to this ongoing debate over this seemingly “bifurcated” papacy and events in the Church since 2013, it is not just scholars who have been questioning Benedict’s resignation, but also an increasing number of faithful, causing significant distress and challenging unity in the Church.
The sensus fidei, or sense of the faith — an instinct that regards what pertains to the Catholic Faith — currently “perceives something is wrong,” said Msgr. Bux who, in 2018, called on Francis to make an urgent profession of faith.
The faithful, he said, “perceive that Francis’ teaching has something ‘strange’ about it and they don’t understand the reason for it, but they almost perceive that a kind of grace of state is lacking, [a grace] which would make Francis’ teaching immune from real heresies.”
Msgr. Bux, who has also served as a consultor to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, does not go so far as to suggest Francis is an “antipope” — a term he regards as “excessive” — but rather as “a sort of ‘unfinished pope’ or acting pope, precisely because of the way Benedict XVI set out his act of resignation.” He added that the resignation “had no clarity of ideas” and by the way “Benedict XVI designed it, Francis seems almost like an administrator, an acting director, a delegate or something like that.”
But the anonymous priest theologian took issue with Msgr. Bux’s argumentation, saying that “just because a pope may not be receptive to the grace of state doesn’t mean it hasn’t been given.” He also said the sensus fidei is misapplied in this context as it normally relates to a specific doctrinal claim, whether it is Catholic or heretical, rather than the “grace of state” which is “not a matter of faith as such.” No one can have a “sense” of whether a person has a “grace of state,” he noted, as it is something “only God can know.”
Benedict Aware of Situation
Nevertheless, Benedict is aware of the divisions and fraught situation in the Church that his resignation has caused, as a somewhat heated exchange of correspondence between him and Cardinal Brandmüller in 2017 showed.
This is “absolutely” a sensitive point for Benedict, Cardinal Brandmüller said, adding that Benedict has “discovered what he has really done, and seen the consequences.”
So what is the solution to this vexatious problem?
One could be to draw up regulations on what a retired pope can and cannot do — something that is rumoured to be under consideration and may possibly be included in Pope Francis’ new constitution for the Roman Curia expected later this year.
In his 2016 article, Cardinal Brandmüller laid out what some of those rules could entail, including the need to define the status of an ex-pope, his name, his residence and also regulation of his social and media contacts so that his dignity is respected but also any danger to Church unity is prevented.
Msgr. Bux said regulations could only be devised for future papal resignations and not applied retroactively. Furthermore, he said a Church legislator could regulate what happens around some of the practicalities of a papal resignation, but he could not legislate on a matter that would “foresee dividing the functions of the papal office, or foresee that a subject could renounce some functions and not others, splitting the office.”
“Only the Lord could allow the papal function to be divided,” he said. “But He did not. And certainly, man could not. Many think the Pope is an interpreter of divine law. He is. But it’s one thing to interpret it in accordance with divine law; it’s another to invent a figure or an institution not provided for by divine law.”
Still, the absence of any man-made legal framework carries risks regarding Benedict’s role.
“The problem that can arise from the legislative vacuum is precisely this: the possibility of a schism in the Church,” said de Mattei, adding that “unfortunately, the responsibility for this confusion lies with Benedict XVI himself.”
It is solely up to Benedict to “clarify his ambiguous position which seems to be the consequence of an erroneous ecclesiology,” he said.
Until then, De Mattei believes Catholics have every right to resist what they see as problems with this pontificate, but they must consider Francis “a legitimate Pope, until proven otherwise.
“To deny this fact, express doubts, clues or hypotheses are not enough,” he said. “Sure proof is needed, shared by an authoritative portion of the Catholic world. This does not seem to me to be the case, at least until today.
Cardinal Brandmüller believes the matter will ultimately only be fully resolved by Benedict’s passing. “From the institutional point of view, it’s the only solution,” he said. “The ground is very mined.”
But for those who have become convinced Benedict is still Pope, that would be unsatisfactory as they would continue not to recognize Francis’ election and, in turn, question the validity of all Francis’ acts such as his encyclicals and appointments, including those of cardinals and bishops.
This is one of the reasons why Bishop Athanasius Schneider rejects the invalid resignation argument, and instead urges greater trust in God, stressing that only He can correct this situation, that the Lord will take “command in the storm” and “give calm back to His Church.”
He also takes some solace in a 2014 letter from Benedict to Andrea Tornielli, then a journalist with La Stampa, in which Benedict reportedly wrote: “There is not the slightest doubt about the validity of my renunciation of the Petrine ministry. The only condition of validity is the full freedom of the decision. Speculation about the invalidity of renunciation is simply absurd.”
Putting the Question to Benedict
But those comments have failed to quell questions about the seeming diarchy of the papacy. On the contrary, the controversy over the validity issue has increased, leading some to insist, for the good of the Church, that Benedict simply issue a clarification himself. This could perhaps be achieved by one or two of his friends asking him to affirm that Francis is the only Pope, there is no bifurcation, and that he fully renounces all trappings of the papacy. Cardinal Brandmüller said he was sympathetic such an initiative.
However this question is resolved, Cardinal Müller believes the virtue of “prudence is needed here,” and noted that “many people are emotionally attached” to a pope and “transfer their sympathies unevenly.”
He also appealed for “the Christian gift of discernment of spirits” so that “ideologues in the media” are not allowed to “incite one another (e.g. in films)” — a reference to the recent Hollywood movie, The Two Popes, which further spread the notion that two pontiffs could exist.
“Everything that causes quarrels and discord is not of the Spirit of God,” Cardinal Müller said, referring to disputes and, at times, vitriolic arguments that have become a frequent occurrence since Benedict’s resignation.
Quoting St. Paul’s letter to the quarrelling Corinthians, Cardinal Müller said: “Each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?’”