Pope Emeritus Enigma: An Explanation at Last
Edmund J. Mazza, PhD
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
More than seven years after Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy, Catholics still find themselves baffled and divided over his abrupt act. This is especially so because unlike every other ex-pope, he did not return to being “Cardinal” Joseph Ratzinger, but instead announced himself as “Pope Emeritus.” Indeed, he is still called Benedict, still dresses in papal white, is still addressed as His Holiness, still gives Apostolic blessings, and still lives in the Vatican. Then, in 2016, Benedict’s personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein unexpectedly heaped fuel onto the fires of speculation and confusion when in an address at the Gregorianum he declared in dramatic overtones that Benedict
has been daring enough to open the door to a new phase, to that historical turning point which no one five years ago could have ever imagined. Since then, we live in an historic era which in the 2,000-year history of the Church is without precedent.
As in the time of Peter, also today the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church continues to have one legitimate Pope. But today we live with two living successors of Peter among us… Many people even today continue to see this new situation as a kind of exceptional (not regular) state of the divinely instituted office of Peter (eine Art göttlichen Ausnahmezustandes)… Since February 2013 the papal ministry is therefore no longer what it was before. It is and remains the foundation of the Catholic Church; and yet it is a foundation which Benedict XVI has profoundly and permanently transformed… And I, too, a firsthand witness of the spectacular and unexpected step of Benedict XVI, I must admit that what always comes to mind is the well-known and brilliant axiom with which, in the Middle Ages, John Duns Scotus justified the divine decree for the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God: “Decuit, potuit, fecit.”
That is to say: it was fitting, because it was reasonable. God could do it, therefore he did it. I apply the axiom to the decision to resign in the following way: it was fitting, because Benedict XVI was aware that he lacked the necessary strength for the extremely onerous office. He could do it, because he had already thoroughly thought through, from a theological point of view, the possibility of popes emeritus for the future. So he did it… The key word in that statement is munus petrinum, translated — as happens most of the time — with “Petrine ministry.” And yet, munus, in Latin, has a multiplicity of meanings: it can mean service, duty, guide or gift, even prodigy. Before and after his resignation, Benedict understood and understands his task as participation in such a “Petrine ministry.” [i.e. munus] He has left the papal throne and yet, with the step made on February 11, 2013, he has not at all abandoned this ministry. Instead, he has complemented the personal office with a collegial and synodal dimension, as a quasi shared ministry (als einen quasi gemeinsamen Dienst)…
…he has not abandoned the Office of Peter — something which would have been entirely impossible for him after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005. By an act of extraordinary courage, he has instead renewed this office (even against the opinion of well-meaning and undoubtedly competent advisers), and with a final effort he has strengthened it (as I hope).But in the history of the Church it shall remain true that, in the year 2013, the famous theologian on the throne of Peter became history’s first “pope emeritus.” Since then, his role — allow me to repeat it once again — is entirely different from that, for example, of the holy Pope Celestine V, who after his resignation in 1294 would have liked to return to being a hermit, becoming instead a prisoner of his successor, Boniface VIII…To date, in fact, there has never been a step like that taken by Benedict XVI. So it is not surprising that it has been seen by some as revolutionary, or to the contrary, as entirely consistent with the Gospel… (emphasis mine)
Gänswein’s musings left many veteran Vatican commentators nonplussed. Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican wrote:
So both the Catholic Left and Right were equally disturbed by Gänswein’s remarks.
Besides adding to the scandal of Catholics not knowing who our real Pope is (its Francis, in case anyone is wondering), or thinking there are two Popes at the same time, the irony of the archbishop’s speech is that neither the papacy nor Benedict’s pontificate needs to be artificially enhanced by anyone, or for any purpose. Vatican Councils I and II made clear that the Church is ruled by one, and only one Pope — at a time — and also gave the papacy all the “expanded” powers it needs, including the charism of infallibility, under clearly defined circumstances.
There is one Pope, and one Petrine Ministry — end of story.
Historian Dr. Roberto De Mattei similarly takes issue with “Pope Emeritus”:
If the pope who resigns from the pontificate retains the title of emeritus, that means that to some extent he remains pope. It is clear, in fact, that in the definition the noun [pope] prevails over the adjective [emeritus]. But why is he still pope after the abdication? The only explanation possible is that the pontifical election has imparted an indelible character, which he does not lose with the resignation. The abdication would presuppose in this case the cessation of the exercise of power, but not the disappearance of the pontifical character. This indelible character attributed to the pope could be explained in its turn only by an ecclesiological vision that would subordinate the juridical dimension of the pontificate to the sacramental.
It is possible that Benedict XVI shares this position, presented by Violi and Gigliotti in their essays, but the eventuality that he may have made the notion of the sacramental nature of the papacy his own does not mean that it is true. There does not exist, except in the imagination of some theologians, a spiritual papacy distinct from the juridical papacy. If the pope is, by definition, the one who governs the Church, in resigning governance he resigns from the papacy. The papacy is not a spiritual or sacramental condition, but an “office,” or indeed an institution. (emphasis mine)
Or as Pope St. John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, put it:
The Petrine Office is not divisible in any fashion, nor can it be a dyarchy in which one exercises the mission of governance and another exercises a mission of prayer. The entire Church welcomes the prayers of Joseph Ratzinger, for the Body of Christ, for the world, and for Pope Francis. But these prayers do not constitute some sort of extension of the Petrine ministry Benedict XVI laid down as of 8 p.m. Central European Time on February 28, 2013. These prayers are the prayers of a great and good man; they are not, since that date and time, the prayers of a pope or a kind of demi-pope.
Archbishop Gaenswein’s reference to title and vesture confirms what many of us thought three years ago: the decisions about these matters made in 2013 were mistaken. Yes, the former bishop of a diocese is its “bishop emeritus” while he lives, for he retains the indelible character of episcopal ordination; but there is no such character to the Petrine office. One either holds the Office of Peter or one doesn’t. And it thoroughly muddies the waters to suggest that there is any proper analogy between a retired diocesan bishop and a pope who has abdicated. (emphasis mine)
And yet, in Peter Seewald’s just released biography, that is precisely the analogy that Benedict uses:
Peter Seewald points out to Benedict that there are church historians who criticize the fact that he calls himself “Pope emeritus,” since such a title “does not exist, also since there are not two popes.” After first saying that he himself does not see why a church historian should know more about such matters than anybody else – after all they “are studying the history of the Church” – , Benedict quotes the fact that “up to the end of the Second Vatican Council, there also did not exist any resignation on the part of bishops.”
After the introduction of the position of a retired bishop, the retired Pope goes on to say, there arose the problem that “one can only become a bishop with relation to a specific diocese,” that is to say, each “consecration is always relative” and “connected with an episcopal seat.” For auxiliary bishops, for example, the Church chose “fictional seats” such as those of formerly Catholic countries in North Africa. Since with the increasing numbers of retiring bishops, these fictional seats were quickly filling up, one German bishop – Simon Landersdorfer of Passau – just decided he would become simply an ’emeritus of Passau.’”
It is here that Pope Benedict then draws a comparison with the papacy. For, such a retired bishop, he adds, “does not anymore actively have an episcopal seat, but, still finds himself in a special relationship of a former bishop to his seat.” This retired bishop, however, thereby “does not become a second bishop of his diocese,” explains Benedict. Such a bishop had “fully given up his office, yet the spiritual connection with his former seat was now being acknowledged, also as a legal quality.” This “new relationship with a seat” is “given as a reality, but lies outside of the concrete legal substance of the episcopal office.” At the same time, adds the retired Pope, the “spiritual connection” is being regarded as a “reality.”
So who is right? Benedict or his critics? The answer is—both!
There is only one explanation that satisfies all and it’s been staring us in the face for seven years.
Firstly, Benedict tells Seewald his “new relationship with a seat” is “given as a reality, but lies outside of the concrete legal substance of the episcopal office.” Translation: Benedict is no longer Bishop [Episcopus] of Rome—Francis is. At the end of his 2013 renunciation, Benedict says as much:
I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, 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 by those whose competence it is. (emphasis mine)
[Non solum propter tres canonizationes ad hoc Consistorium vos convocavi, sed etiam ut vobis decisionem magni momenti pro Ecclesiae vita communicem. Conscientia mea iterum atque iterum coram Deo explorata ad cognitionem certam perveni vires meas ingravescente aetate non iam aptas esse ad munus Petrinum aeque administrandum.
Bene conscius sum hoc munus secundum suam essentiam spiritualem non solum agendo et loquendo exsequi debere, sed non minus patiendo et orando. Attamen in mundo nostri temporis rapidis mutationibus subiecto et quaestionibus magni ponderis pro vita fidei perturbato ad navem Sancti Petri gubernandam et ad annuntiandum Evangelium etiam vigor quidam corporis et animae necessarius est, qui ultimis mensibus in me modo tali minuitur, ut incapacitatem meam ad ministerium mihi commissum bene administrandum agnoscere debeam. Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20 sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet et Conclave ad eligendum novum Summum Pontificem ab his quibus competit convocandum esse.]
Yet, the “key word” in that statement, as Gänswein first pointed out in 2016, “is munus petrinum, translated —as happens most of the time— with ‘Petrine ministry.’ And yet, munus, in Latin, has a multiplicity of meanings: it can mean service, duty, guide or gift, even prodigy. Before and after his resignation, Benedict understood and understands his task as participation in such a ‘Petrine ministry’.” Again, Benedict tells Seewald in 2019, the “spiritual dimension…is alone still my mandate [munus].”
But how can Benedict acknowledge his successor as bishop of Rome and yet still cling to the Petrine munus? After all, as Weigel says: “The Petrine Office is not divisible in any fashion, nor can it be a dyarchy in which one exercises the mission of governance and another exercises a mission of prayer.”
Indeed, Benedict has not created a dyarchy of two “popes,” in the sense of two bishops of Rome. For it is true, a see cannot have two bishops and the Petrine munus is not divisible either. Benedict has kept it for himself. Which is why in his declaration he renounced the “ministry” and not the munus. And why Gänswein, himself, draws our attention to that word.
And here we come to it at last: the ultimate solution to the “Emeritus enigma” is not to conclude that Benedict has divided the Petrine munus—but that he has divided the Petrine munus from the episcopal See of Rome!
Now, it is of Faith that Christ made St. Peter an Apostle and that he conferred on him the Keys of the Primacy—but nowhere is it recorded in Scripture that Christ made him bishop of Rome. Peter made Peter bishop of Antioch and then Peter made Peter bishop of Rome. As De Mattei once wrote: “He is bishop of Rome in that he is pope, and not pope in that he is bishop of Rome.”
Being, in fact, Pope, Benedict had/has by his munus, all the authority of Peter, so what did he do on February 28, 2013? It seems he separated Peter from the See of Rome: “The papal ministry is therefore no longer what it was before. It is and remains the foundation of the Catholic Church; and yet it is a foundation which Benedict XVI has profoundly and permanently transformed…” If true, Benedict still retains his Primacy—but is only a former bishop of Rome. Conversely, Pope Francis would now occupy the chair—but would not be the Vicar of Christ (something of which he, himself, is seemingly unashamed to boast).
But can a pope actually withdraw the Primacy from the See of Rome? Here is what Thomas Livius wrote in his classic 1888 work on the Papacy:
To say, then, that the Popes are St. Peter’s true successors, and have the Primacy by Divine Right, is to assert a Catholic truth that has been defined by the Church and belongs to her faith. But…[Christ] did not determine what were to be the conditions in concreto of such [Peter’s] true succession, but left all this to the determination of St. Peter and his successors…Even granting that the union of the Primacy with the Roman See is jure divino, the particular question may still be raised: whether a Pope, in some evidently most grave and urgent necessity, could validly separate the Primacy from the See of Rome. The solution here is not an easy one, and grave theologians may be cited on either side… (emphasis mine)
Such was the case at the First Vatican Council, whose sesquicentennial, coincidentally, the Church commemorates this year:
Intense debate on romanitas preceded the final statement in Pastor Aeternus. Disagreement was first evident in the vota of the Preparatory Theological Commission. [Philip] Cossa argued that no human authority, including that of the pope, could separate Petrine succession from that in the Roman episcopate. [Franz] Hettinger was also convinced of the inseparability of perpetuitas from romanitas…
[But] Eighteen Fathers asked for a clarification of the chapter’s statement: “Whoever succeeds Peter in this chair holds Peter’s primacy over the whole Church according to the institution of Christ himself”…Since there was no divine promise that Rome be the see where the successors of Peter should preside as bishop, [Bishop] Dupanloup [of Orleans] thought that romanitas by divine right could not be proven.
Bishop Mariotti’s remarks were in the same vein: only succession in Peter’s primacy was of divine right…it had to be evident that it originated with the will of Christ, a condition which was met for Petrine primacy, but not for romanitas. Peter himself chose Rome as his episcopal see. Since this choice did not involve the revealed will of Christ, Peter’s successor was not by divine right the Roman bishop. In general, the Fathers who opposed the formulation of the Deputation wanted to leave open the question how the relation between perpetuitas and romanitas could be qualified, a question they accused the Deputation of attempting to decide authoritatively. (emphasis mine)
So, in the end, the Council’s
Deputation did not want wish to commit itself to a statement on the right by which the Roman bishop succeeds to the primacy, though it did hold that “it was a dogma of faith that whoever succeeded Peter in his cathedra was also successor to the primacy.”
To reiterate then, it is not against the teaching of the Church to argue that a pope has the power to remove the Petrine Primacy from the See of Rome, especially in a situation of grave and unprecedented danger to the Faith. Gänswein used the German word “Ausnahmezustandes” or “state of exception” to describe Benedict’s munus of Peter/Petrine ministry. Now, a state of exception is defined as “a concept in the legal theory of Carl Schmitt, similar to a state of emergency (martial law), but based in the sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good. This concept is developed in Giorgio Agamben’s book State of Exception…” (emphasis mine)
Or as Archbishop Gänswein (quoting Scotus on Mary’s Immaculate Conception) said: “Decuit, potuit, fecit.” It was fitting…God could do it, therefore he did it. In this case, so did Pope Benedict. If he truly separated Peter’s Primacy from the Roman See, then Gänswein’s gushings over Benedict’s maneuver, at last, appear apt: “profoundly transformed,” “extraordinary courage,” “daring,” “spectacular,” “unexpected,” “a new phase,” “turning point,” “historic,” “entirely different,” “never been a step like it,” “unprecedented,” terms that fall flat describing a simple bishop’s retirement—even a pope’s! Only a “Captain Kirk” “Kobayashi Maru” solution by Pope Benedict could justify the use of such superlatives while simultaneously answering all the criticisms of his “renunciation” and satisfying all the parameters of the “Pope Emeritus” controversy. (What it means for Pope Francis and the future of the Church is, quite frankly, a matter for a different article.) In the end, as Sherlock Holmes declared: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
COMPANION INTERVIEW TO THIS POSITION PAPER, RECORDED TODAY, 27 May, ARSH 2020: