“Leave the Throne, Take the Ministry”: The Sacred Powers of Pope Emeritus
Edmund J. Mazza, PhD
“I became convinced that the commission of Peter demanded concrete decisions, insights, from me, but then, when it was no longer possible for me for the foreseeable future…the Lord…freed me from the burden…”
Pope Benedict, Last Testament with Peter Seewald, 2017
How does Pope Benedict understand the Papacy? To answer this question, we must first find out how His Holiness understands Sacred Power.
In the history of the Church, the Sacred Power (potestas sacra) of the clergy has been divided into two categories indicating two separate origins of that one power: 1) Power of Order (potestas ordinis) and 2) Power of Jurisdiction (potestas iurisdictionis, also known as missio canonica, or potestas regiminis).
The Power of Order is received at Priestly Ordination and gives power to a man to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and other sacraments. It changes a man ontologically: once made a priest, he can never be unmade a priest. His being receives a sacramental character that is indelible. As Rev. Pius Pietrzyk, O.P. writes: “although the Church acts as the medium through which a man is ordained, it is Christ who does the ordaining. The Church cannot undo what Christ has done.”
The Power of Jurisdiction, on the other hand, is traditionally understood as authority flowing from the Vicar of Christ and granted to bishops to govern specific dioceses. As Pietrzyk writes: “The whole reason for the developed distinction of the potestas iurisdictionis was that, unlike the potestas ordinis, it could be lost. Since sacred character cannot be lost, but potestas iurisdictionis may, it must have a different proximate source.”
To licitly exercise the Power of Order a man must first be in communion with the Pope and bishops. Even Vatican II recognized this: “Without hierarchical communion the sacramental-ontological munus [potestas ordinis], which ought to be distinguished from the canonical-juridical aspect[potestas iurisdictionis], cannot be exercised.” (emphasis mine)Passing over the issue of hierarchical communion, let us highlight instead the “buried lead” above: the Council affirmed that ordination gives a “sacramental-ontological munus” to the priest/bishop quite apart from any juridical/legal power of administration.
In this, the Council fathers were taking their lead from Pope Pius XII, who in 1947, issued a new document on the rite of ordination. None other than Joseph Ratzinger, in his 1987, Principles of Catholic Theology contrasts the change in theologybetween that magisterial document and previous ones:
The rite that Pius XII decrees represents a return to the form used in the early Church. It is pneumatologically oriented in terms of both gesture (since the imposition of hands signifies the conferral of the Holy Spirit) and word: the Preface is a petition for the Holy Spirit. Accordingly,the key word is now ministerium or munus: service and gift; (emphasis mine)
The significance of this passage cannot be overestimated for anyone who has been following the controversy over Benedict’s own use of “munus” and “ministerium” in his 2013 “resignation.” This is especially so in light of his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s words of May 2016:
The key word in that statement [Benedict’s renunciation] 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 [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. (emphasis mine)
Gänswein was roundly criticized by Catholic experts for this explanation. Distinguished Church historian Roberto De Mattei among them:
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 [potestas iurisdictionis] of the pontificate to the sacramental[potestas ordinis].
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)
“An ecclesiological vision that would subordinate the juridical dimension [potestas iurisdictionis] of the pontificate to the sacramental [potestas ordinis] is precisely how Benedict understands Sacred Power. Benedict is, in fact, diametrically opposed to De Mattei’s dictum: “The papacy is not a spiritual or sacramental condition, but an ‘office,’ or indeed an institution.”Listen to Ratzinger’s scathing criticism of the Church’s traditional understanding of the Power of Jurisdiction and“office” in contrast to the Power of Order with regard to the priest/bishop:
While the medieval text…saw the ordination as resulting from the indicative of the conferral of power, ordination is accomplished according to the 1947 text…in the manner…of a prayer. Thus, it is apparent even in the external form that the true conferrer of power is the Holy Spirit, to whom the sacramental prayer is addressed, not the human consecrator.
The medieval rite is formed on the pattern of investiture in a secular office. Its key word is potestas…[however, since 1947] the key word is now ministerium or munus: service and gift;
The most crucial event in the development of the Latin West was, I think, the increasing distinction between sacrament [potestas ordinis] and jurisdiction [potestas iurisdictionis], between liturgy and administration as such…
I think we should be honest enough to admit the temptation of mammon in the history of the Church and to recognize to what extent it was a real power that worked to the distortion and corruption of both Church and theology, even to their inmost core. The separation of office as jurisdiction from office as rite was continued for reasons of prestige and financial benefits; (emphasis mine)
Did Benedict just condemn the Church’s theology of potestas iurisdictionis? Did he just characterize her understanding ofpower of governance through office as something distorted and corrupt to the core?
Benedict, as it turns out, represents one of two schools of thought with regard to the ontology of Sacred Power. According to Msgr. Fredrik Hansen:
The first current [of thought] emanates from…K. Rahner, J. Ratzinger and Y. Congar…They all support the view that potestas sacra comes from the sacrament of orders [potestas ordinis]. In the case of the potestas sacra of the Bishop they advocate its complete origin in episcopal consecration [potestas ordinis]…Further this position teaches that also the power of teaching and governance comes from episcopal ordination although its exercise must take place within hierarchical communion. The missio canonica [potestas iurisdictionis] as the juridical determination for the two latter powers [teaching and governance] renders this potestas sacra available for its exercise…The Primacy of jurisdiction of the Supreme Pontiff (cf. can. 331, PAE chap III, LG 18b) becomes difficult to explain in relation to this current. On a sacramental level (the power of order) there is no difference between the Roman Pontiff and the other Bishops of the Church. The difference in jurisdiction comes from a non-sacramental source…The power he then acquires comes directly from Christ, not from the election, and not from the College of Cardinals. (emphasis mine)
“The Primacy of jurisdiction of the Supreme Pontiff” does indeed “become difficult to explain in relation to” Ratzinger’s nouvelle theologie! Tradition teaches the Power of Jurisdiction can be lost! Thus, De Mattei’s filial correction of Benedict/Gänswein. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that Benedict is unconcerned about accounting for the Primacy of Jurisdiction of the Supreme Pontiff. Witness what he had to say on the matter:
[Orthodox] Patriarch Athenagoras when he greeted the Pope [Paul VI in Jerusalem, 1964 exclaimed]: “Against all expectation, the bishop of Rome is among us, the first among us in honor, ‘he who presides in love’...” It is clear that, in saying this, the Patriarch did not abandon the claims of the Eastern Churches or acknowledge the primacy of the West. Rather he stated plainly what the East understood as the order, the rank and title, of the equal bishops in the Church—and it would be worth our while to consider whether this archaic confession, which has nothing to do with the “primacy of jurisdiction” but confesses a primacy of “honor” (τιμή) and agape, might not be recognized as a formula that adequately reflects the position Rome occupies in the Church—“holy courage” requires that prudence be combined with “audacity”: “The kingdom of God suffers violence.” (emphasis mine)
In one audacious sentence, Ratzinger completely side-steps the De Fide definition of Vatican I regarding the Supreme Power of Jurisdiction of the Pope! The Pope’s Power of Order suffices,it seems, to account for the essence of Who and What he is! He does not occupy “an office of jurisdiction,” which comes and goes, so much as a spiritual “office of rite” which is indelible:
The office of the papacy is a cross, indeed, the greatest of all crosses. For what can be said to pertain more to the cross and anxiety of the soul than the care and [personal] responsibility for all the Churches…attachment to the Word and will of God because of the Lord is what makes the sedes [throne] a cross and thus proves the Vicar [the Pope] to be a representative [of Christ].
But the witness is not an individual who stands independently on his own. He is no more a wit ness by virtue of himself and of his own powers of memory than Peter can be the rock by his own strength. He is not a witness as “flesh and blood” but as one who is linked to the Pneuma, the Paraclete who authenticates the truth and opens up the memory and, in his turn, binds the witness to Christ…This binding of the witness to the Pneuma and to his mode of being-“not of himself, but what he hears” -is called “sacrament” in the language of the Church. –Sacrament designates a threefold knot—word–witness, Holy Spirit and Christ—which describes the essential structure of succession in the New Testament. We can infer with certainty from the testimony of the Pastoral Letters and of the Acts of the Apostles that the apostolic generation already gave to this interconnection of person and wordin the believed presence of the Spirit and of Christ the form of the laying on of hands.
Here, allow me to go back once again to 19 April 2005. The real gravity of the decision [to accept the Papacy] was also due to the fact that from that moment on I was engaged always and forever by the Lord. Always – anyone who accepts the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and completely to everyone, to the whole Church…The “always” is also a “for ever”
Benedict “left the throne,” but “not his participation in the Petrine Ministry [munus].” In the Power of Order, it is not the Church, but Christ Himself who makes a man a priest. Thus, he cannot be unmade a priest. Likewise, Benedict seemingly argues, since it is Christ Himself and not the Church who makes a man a pope, he cannot be unmade a pope:
I had to…consider whether or not functionalism would completely encroach on the papacy …Earlier, bishops were not allowed to resign…a number of bishops…said ‘I am a father and that I’ll stay’, because you can’t simply stop being a father; stopping is a functionalization and secularization, something from the sort of concept of public office that shouldn’t apply to a bishop... He remains a father in a deep, inward sense, in a particular relationship which has responsibility, but not with day-to-day tasks as such… If he steps down, he remains in an inner sense within the responsibility he took on, but not in the function…
Benedict went so far as to tell Seewald that the “office enters into your very being.” In fact, he once criticized Martin Luther precisely for misunderstanding the difference between office as jurisdiction (or function) and office as rite:
[For Luther] the priest does not transcend his role as preacher. The consequent restriction to the word alone had, as its logical outcome, the pure functionality of the priesthood: it consisted exclusively in a particular activity; if that activity was missing, the ministry itself ceased to exist…There was purposely no further mention of priesthood but only of “office”; the assignment of this office was, in itself, a secular act;
Benedict does not see the priesthood, or better yet, the papacy as “consisting exclusively in a particular activity, so that if that activity is missing, the ministry itself ceases to exist”:
My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministrydoes not revoke this…I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance [potestas iurisdictionis] of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter [potestas ordinis]. (Emphasis mine)
And in Seewald’s latest interview released in German in May2020, Benedict doubles down on his “Petrine” status:
This word “emerito” meant that he was no longer an active bishop but was in the special relationship of a former bishop to his seat…the spiritual connection to his previous seat was now also recognized as a legal quality…It does not create any participation in the concrete legal content of the episcopate [potestas iurisdictionis], but at the same time sees the spiritual bond as a reality. So there are not two bishops, but there is a spiritual mandate [potestas ordinis], the essence of which is to serve from the inside, from the Lord, in praying with and for his previous bishopric.(Emphasis mine)
Seewald then directly asks His Holiness: “But does that also apply to the pope?”
It is not clear why this legal figure should not be applied to the Bishop of Rome either. In this formula, both are given no specific legal power of attorney anymore, but a spiritual assignment that remains – albeit invisible. This legal-spiritual form avoids any thought of a coexistence of two popes: a bishopric can only have one owner. At the same time, a spiritual connection is expressed that cannot be removed under any circumstances. (Emphasis mine)
But is Benedict’s ontological vision of the papacy an accurate one? As Hansen maintains, the other school of thought opposed to Ratzinger has centuries of tradition—and contemporary canon law behind it:
The second current of thought…makes a distinction between the episcopal consecration [potestas ordinis] on the one hand and the missio canonica on the other. The result is a position diametrically opposed to the first [Ratzinger’s] school of thought, holding that the power of governance comes from the missio canonica [potestas iurisdictionis] by which an office is entrusted…it allows an explanation of the difference between the Pope and the Bishops as regards jurisdiction…this second line of thought is echoed in the canonical doctrine found in the 1983 Code [of Canon Law] and the post-codal papal and curial documents, whereas the first [Ratzinger’s] is not: neither CIC 1983 nor Pastores gregis, or Apostolorum successores speak of power as the first current[Ratzinger’s] does…It is, therefore, important to underline that the distinction between the power of order and the power of jurisdiction was by the Council or Code neither negated nor suppressed, it remains a part of canonical doctrine. (emphasis mine)
Benedict would argue to the contrary, that Vatican II teaches: “the sacramental-ontological munus [potestas ordinis]…ought to be distinguished from the canonical-juridical aspect [potestas iurisdictionis]” (Lumen gentium AAS 57 (1965) 5-75 at 75.)This is why His Holiness went to great pains NOT TO RENOUNCE THE PETRINE MUNUS AS SUCH in his 2013 “Declaratio.”
But Vatican II was referring to the priesthood and episcopacy, not the papacy.
In the end, what Pope Benedict proposes regarding his ongoing Petrine status is, to use his words, audacious and violent. And if Benedict is objectively wrong, then when he renounced the throne thinking he could still keep the Petrine Ministry [munus], he committed a substantial error, invalidating his renunciation.