Thoughts on the Resignation of Benedict XVI

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Resignation of Benedict XVIby Roberto de Mattei; On February 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Holy Father Benedict XVI announced to the Consistory of Cardinals and to the whole world his decision to resign from the papacy. The announcement was greeted by the cardinals “almost in disbelief”, “with a sense of bewilderment”, “like a bolt from the blue”, according to the remarks addressed to the Pope immediately afterward by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals.

If the bewilderment of the cardinals was so great, one can imagine how intense the disorientation of the faithful is these days, especially those who have always regarded Benedict XVI as a reference point and now feel somehow “orphaned”, if not downright abandoned, in view of the serious difficulties that the Church faces at the present hour.

Yet the possibility that a Pope could renounce the papal throne was not entirely unexpected. The [then] President of the German Bishops’ Conference, Karl Lehmann, and the [then] Primate of Belgium, Godfried Danneels, had put forward the idea of the “resignation” of John Paul II, when his health had deteriorated. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his 2010 book-length interview Light of the World, had told the German journalist Peter Seewald that if a pope “realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign” (p. 30). In 2010, then, fifty Spanish theologians had expressed their support for the Open Letter to the bishops of the whole world by the Swiss theologian Hans Küng with these words:

BLK We believe that the pontificate of Benedict XVI is worn out. The Pope has neither the vigor nor the intellectual acumen to respond adequately to the serious and urgent problems which the Catholic Church finds that she must face. We think therefore, with due respect for his person, that he ought to tender his resignation from his office. BLK

And in 2011-2012, when some journalists, like Giuliano Ferrara and Antonio Socci, had written about the possible resignation of the Pope, this idea had elicited among readers more disapproval than agreement.

There is no doubt whatsoever about the right of a Pope to resign. The new Code of Canon Law regulates the possibility of a resignation by the Pope in canon 332, paragraph 2, with these words:

BLK Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made ​and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone. BLK

Moreover Articles 1 and 3 of the 1996 Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominicis Gregis, on the vacancy of the Holy See, foresee the possibility that the vacancy of the Apostolic See might be brought about not only by the death of the Pope, but also by his valid resignation.

In history there are not very many documented episodes of abdication. The best known case is still that of St. Celestine V, the monk Pietro da Morrone, who was elected in Perugia on July 5, 1294, and crowned in L’Aquila the following month on August 29. After a pontificate of only five months, he thought it opportune to resign, considering himself not up to the office that he had taken. Therefore he prepared his abdication, first consulting the Cardinals and then issuing a constitution with which he reaffirmed the validity of the rules already established by Gregory X for conducting the next Conclave. On December 13 in Naples he pronounced his abdication in the presence of the College of Cardinals, relinquished the papal insignia and vestments, and resumed the habit of a hermit. On December 24, 1294, Benedetto Caetani was elected Pope in his stead, with the name of Boniface VIII. Another case of papal resignation – the last one to date – occurred during the course of the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Gregory XII (1406-1415), the legitimate Pope, in order to mend the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), sent to Constance his plenipotentiary Carlo Malatesta to make known his intention to retire from the papal office; on July 4, 1415, his resignation was officially accepted by the conciliar assembly, which at the same time deposed the antipope Benedict XIII. Gregory XII was reinstated in the Sacred College with the title of Cardinal Bishop of Porto and ranking first after the Pope. Having abandoned his papal name and garb and taken again the name of Cardinal Angelo Correr, he retired to the Marches as papal legate and died in Recanati on October 18, 1417.

The possibility of resignation, therefore, is not scandalous per se: it is covered by canon law and has historically occurred over the centuries. It should be noted, however, that the Pope can resign, and sometimes has historically resigned from the Papacy, inasmuch as it is considered an “jurisdictional office of the Church” and is not indelibly linked to the person who occupies it. The apostolic hierarchy in fact exercises two powers that are mysteriously united in the same persons: the power of order [i.e., Holy Orders] and the power of jurisdiction (see, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-IIae, q. 39, a. 3, resp.; III, q. 6, a. 2). Both powers are ordered to achieve the particular goals of the Church, but each with its own characteristics, which distinguish it profoundly from the other: the potestas ordinis is the power to distribute the means of divine grace and pertains to the administration of the sacraments and to the conduct of official worship; the potestas iurisdictionis is the power to govern the ecclesiastical institution and the individual faithful.

The power of order is distinguished from the power of jurisdiction not only by a difference in nature and object, but also by the way in which it is conferred, inasmuch as this power is essentially given at consecration, that is, by means of a sacrament and through the impression of a sacred character. Possession of the potestas ordinis is absolutely indelible inasmuch as its degrees are not temporary offices, but rather imprint characters upon those who on whom it is conferred. According to the Code of Canon Law, once a baptized man becomes a deacon, priest or bishop, he is one forever and no human authority can erase this ontological condition. The power of jurisdiction, in contrast, is not indelible but rather temporary and revocable; its offices, for which physical persons are responsible, terminate with the cessation of the mandate.

Another important feature of the power of order is its non-territoriality, since the degrees of the hierarchy of order [i.e., Holy Orders] are absolutely independent from any territorial limitation, at least as regards the validity of their exercise. The offices of the power of jurisdiction, on the contrary, are always limited in space, and the territory is always one of their constituent elements, except that of the Supreme Pontiff, who is not subject to any spatial limitation.

In the Church the power of jurisdiction belongs jure divino, by divine right, to the Pope and to the bishops. The fullness of this power resides, however, only in the Pope who, as its foundation, supports the whole ecclesiastical edifice. In him is found all pastoral authority, and in the Church any other independent pastoral authority is inconceivable.

Liberal theology supports in contrast, in the name of the Second Vatican Council, a reform of the Church, in a sacramental and charismatic sense, which pits the power of order against the power of jurisdiction, the church of charity against the church of law, the episcopal structure against the monarchical structure. The Pope, reduced to a primus inter pares [first among equals] within the college of bishops, would have only an ethical and prophetic function, a primacy of “honor” or “love”, but not of government or jurisdiction. From this perspective Hans Küng and others mentioned the idea of a pontificate “of limited duration” and no longer for life, as the form of government required by the swiftly changing modern world and with its endless new problems. “We cannot have an 80-year-old Pontiff who is no longer fully present from the physical and mental standpoint,” Küng said to the radio station Südwestrundfunk; the Swiss theologian sees the limitation of the papal mandate as a necessary step for the radical reform of the Church. The Pope would be reduced to the president of a board of directors, to a merely arbitrating figure, alongside an “open-ended” ecclesiastical structure, such as a permanent synod, with decision-making powers.

However, if one maintains that the essence of papacy is found in the sacramental power of order and not in the supreme power of jurisdiction, then the Pope could never resign; if he did, he would lose by his resignation only the exercise of the supreme power, but not the power itself, which would be indelible, like the sacramental ordination from which springs. Anyone who admits the possibility of resignation must admit that the Pope derives his summa potestas [supreme authority] from the jurisdiction that he exercises and not from the sacrament that he receives. Liberal theology is therefore self-contradictory when it pretends that the Papacy is founded on its sacramental nature, and then claims that a Pope can resign, which however can be admitted only if his commission is based on the power of jurisdiction. For the same reason there cannot be, after the resignation of Benedict XVI, “two popes”, one in office and one “emeritus”, as some have said improperly. Benedict XVI will go back to being His Eminence Cardinal Ratzinger and will not be able to exercise the prerogatives, such as infallibility, that are intimately connected with the power of papal jurisdiction.

The Pope, therefore, may resign. But is it opportune for him to do so? An author certainly not “traditional”, Enzo Bianchi, certainly not a “traditionalist” author, wrote in the July 1, 2002, issue of La Stampa:

BLK According to the great tradition of the Church of the East and of the West, no Pope, no patriarch, no bishop should resign just because he has reached an age limit. It is true that for thirty-some years in the Catholic Church there has been a rule that invites bishops to offer their resignation to the pope upon completing their seventy-fifth year, and it is true that all the bishops accept this invitation in obedience and submit it, and it is also true that normally their requests are granted and their resignations are accepted. But this remains a recent rule and practice, established by Paul VI and confirmed by Pope John Paul II: there is nothing to prevent it from being revised in future, after deliberation of the advantages and problems that it has produced in these decades in which it has been applied. BLK

The rule that bishops resign at age 75 from their dioceses is a recent phase in the history of the Church, which seems to contradict the words of St. Paul, in whose estimation the Shepherd is appointed “ad convivendum et ad commoriendum” (2 Cor 7:3), to live and to die alongside his flock. The vocation of a Pastor, like that of every baptized person, is in fact binding, not until a certain age or contingent on good health, but until death.

In this respect, the renunciation of the papacy by Benedict XVI appears as a legitimate act from the theological and canonical perspective, but on the historical level as an absolute break with the tradition and practice of the Church. From the perspective of what the consequences of it might be, this gesture is not simply “innovative”, but radically “revolutionary”, as Eugenio Scalfari described it in the pages of La Repubblica on February 12. The image of the institution of the papacy in the eyes of public opinion throughout the world is in fact being stripped of its sacredness so as to be handed over to the criteria by which modernity judges things. It is no accident that in the Corriere della Sera on the same day, Massimo Franco speaks about an “extreme, final, irrevocable symptom of the crisis of a system of government and a form of papacy.”

No comparison can be made with either Celestine V, who resigned after having been snatched by force from his hermit’s cell, or with Gregory XII, who in turn was forced to resign in order to resolve the very serious issue of the Great Western Schism. Those were exceptional cases. But what is the exception in the gesture by Benedict XVI? The official reason, enunciated clearly in his words on February 11, reflects the norm rather than the exception:

BLK 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…. BLK

We are not confronted here with a serious disability, as was the case with John Paul II at the final close of his pontificate. The intellectual faculties of Benedict XVI are fully intact, as he demonstrated in one of his last and most important meditations at the Roman Seminary, and his health is “generally good”, as Fr. Federico Lombardi noted; according to the spokesman of the Holy See, however, the Pope has pointed out in recent times, “the imbalance between the tasks, the problems to be addressed and strength which he feels that he does not have at his disposal.”

Nevertheless, from the moment of his election, each pontiff experiences an understandable feeling of inadequacy, noticing the disproportion between his personal abilities and the weight of the responsibility to which he is called. Who can say that he is capable of supporting with his own strength the munus [office] of the Vicar of Christ? The Holy Ghost however assists the Pope not only at the time of his election, but until his death, at every moment, even the most difficult of his pontificate. Today the Holy Ghost is often invoked inappropriately, as when it is claimed that He vouches for every act and every word of a Pope or of a Council. These days, however, He is notably absent from the comments in the mainstream media that evaluate the gesture of Benedict XVI according to a purely human criterion, as if the Church were a multinational corporation, directed in terms of sheer efficiency, regardless of any supernatural influence.

But the question is this: in two thousand years of history, how many Popes have reigned in good health and have not noticed the decline of their strength and have not suffered from illnesses and moral trials of all sorts? Physical wellbeing has never been a criterion for governing the Church. Will it be from Benedict XVI on? A Catholic cannot help wondering about these questions, and if he does not ask them, these questions will be posed by the facts, for instance in the next conclave, when the choice of Benedict’s successor will inevitably be oriented towards a young cardinal in his prime so that he can be considered equal to the serious mission that awaits him. Unless the heart of the problem is not in these “questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” referred to by the Pope, which may be alluding to the ungovernable situation in which the Church seems be in today.

It would be unwise, in this respect, to consider the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI as already “concluded”, or to start drawing up premature assessments, without first waiting for the prophetic deadline that he announced: the evening of February 28, 2013, a date that will be engraved in the history of the Church. Before then, but even after that date, Benedict XVI could still be the protagonist of new and unexpected scenarios. The Pope indeed announced his resignation, but not his silence, and his decision restores to him a freedom that perhaps he felt deprived of. What will Benedict XVI say and do, or Cardinal Ratzinger, in the coming days, weeks and months? And most importantly, who will lead, and in what manner, the bark of Peter in the new storms that inevitably lie ahead? (Translated by Michael J. Miller)

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