Benedict XVI’s resignation sparked calls for a retirement protocol

VATICAN CITY (AP) — If there was ever a moment that epitomized the surreal novelty created by the first papal resignation in 600 years, it was the morning of March 23, 2013: newly-elected Pope Francis stood traveled to the papal summer retreat south of Rome and was greeted on the helipad by the previous pope, Benedict XVI, who had moved there three weeks earlier.

Two men in white – a reigning and a retired pope – each showing the deference due to a pontiff and discussing the future of the Catholic Church as it moves from one papacy to another .

But for some, that moment on the Castel Gandolfo helipad encapsulates all that was wrong with Benedict’s surprise resignation and the risks it posed to the very unity of the Catholic Church and the institution of the papacy.

For these critics, Benedict’s decision to retire at 85 rather than die on the job has created the specter of two leaders in the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church, with the former pope remaining a point of reference. for the traditionalists who opposed the new pope and refused to recognize his legitimacy.

For a church that prides itself on unity, believes in the singular primacy of the pope, and views the pontiff as the divinely inspired successor to the Apostle Peter, any confusion over who is truly in charge is no small feat.

“Situations like this could lead to a schism,” German Cardinal Walter Brandmueller warned shortly after the March meeting.

All confusion ended on Saturday, when Benoît died at his home in the Vatican Gardens at 95. Francis will celebrate his funeral mass on Thursday, creating something new for the church: that of a reigning pope eulogizing a pensioner.

From the title he chose (pope emeritus) to the cassock he wore (white) to his occasional public comments (about sexual abuse and priestly celibacy), Benedict’s decisions after his retirement have drawn calls to the Vatican to develop rules and regulations to guide future popes. who could follow in his footsteps and resign.

Even Francis weighed in, saying that a decade after Benedict’s experiment began, regulations would be needed in the future. Things had worked out quite well in Benedict’s case because he was “holy and discreet,” Francis said.

The Jesuit pope, for the record, said that if he retired he would be known as ‘Bishop Emeritus of Rome’, not ‘Pope Emeritus’ and would live somewhere in Rome, not the Vatican or his Native Argentina.

But Francis was unable to craft any protocol governing a future retired pope while Benedict was still alive, creating a situation of uncertainty and unease about the status quo that particularly annoyed Benedict’s staunchest supporters. Now that Benedict is dead, the Vatican might be in a better position to draft such regulations.

“I hope we don’t have a lot of retired popes, but if this were to continue, ecclesiastical law needs to develop a set of protocols,” said Australian Cardinal George Pell, a staunch supporter of Benedict XVI who s nevertheless opposed his decision to resign.

“As it becomes increasingly evident, the unity of the church can never be taken for granted,” Pell said in a 2021 interview, noting some traditionalists’ nostalgia for Benedict’s doctrinaire papacy.

“I deeply agree with almost everything Pope Benedict XVI has said and written. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for retired popes to teach, write or comment. I don’t think it’s be appropriate for a retired pope to wear white,” he said.

And Pell said he didn’t think a retired pope should be called “pope emeritus”, but should instead revert to his birth name and take his place as a retired member of the College of Cardinals.

And yet, it was precisely Benedict XVI’s own longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who staunchly defended Benedict XVI’s decisions and refused to back down even after certain problems surfaced.

Speaking at a book launch in 2016, Gaenswein agreed there weren’t “two popes”. But he said what Benedict had done in stepping down was to create an “enlarged” papal ministry “with an active member and a contemplative member.”

“Because of this, Benedict has not given up either his name or his white cassock, and for this reason the correct way to address him is always ‘Your Holiness,'” Gaenswein said, according to an audio recording. of his remarks on Vatican Radio. . “Furthermore, he did not retire to an isolated monastery, but inside the Vatican as if he had just faded away to make way for his successor and a new chapter in the history of the papacy. .”

Such a thesis has been flatly rejected, even by the most enthusiastic champions of Benedict XVI.

And lest anyone forget, long before ‘The Two Popes’ was released on Netflix in 2019, Dante in his ‘Divine Comedy’ warned of threats to the church when he attacked ‘cowardice’. of a pope who resigned. It is believed that Dante was referring to Pope Celestine V, the hermit pope who resigned in 1294 and was responsible for what Dante called “the great refusal”. And yet, it was precisely at Celestine’s grave that Benoît prayed in 2009 in a gesture widely considered to have laid the foundations for his own retirement.

German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who succeeded former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, said there was no legal or theological basis for a “pope emeritus” and said that the title was invented and deeply problematic.

In a 2021 interview, Mueller said applying the title “emeritus” used for retired bishops to the pope was a mistake since the pope is not just any bishop or even “first among equals.” “, but rather the Vicar of Christ on Earth.

“It’s just an honorary title. It does not exist as part of the divine constitution of the church,” Mueller told The Associated Press. “It is better to avoid this title.”

Many observers, including one of the Vatican’s foremost jurists, the Reverend Gianfranco Ghirlanda, have said that a more appropriate title would have been “bishop emeritus of Rome”, to make it abundantly clear that any retired pope no longer had any claim on the papacy. .

In doing so, Ghirlanda wrote in an early 2013 essay in the Jesuit journal “La Civilta Cattolica,” would follow the practice of “all other diocesan bishops” who cease their duties upon his resignation.

Additionally, while Benedict has largely delivered on his promise to live “hidden from the world” in retirement, he has spoken out from time to time, and those times have also become concerning.

The most resounding came in 2020, when Benedict XVI co-wrote a book reaffirming the “necessity” of a celibate priesthood.

There was nothing new in his position. But the book came out just as Francis was considering whether to ordain married men in the Amazon due to a shortage of priests there.

The implications of Benedict XVI’s intervention were serious, raising the specter of a parallel magisterium, or official Church teaching, at a time when the Church was already polarized between conservatives aspiring to Benedict’s orthodoxy and the progressives acclaiming the merciful inclination of Francis.

“It’s one thing to publish, as a simple citizen, a book on Jesus as Benedict did before his resignation,” wrote the Reverend Jean-François Chiron, theologian at the University of Lyon, in the daily. French Catholic La Croix. “It is quite another to take sides on important and current issues facing the universal Church.”

In the end, Benoît distanced himself from the publication and asked to be removed as co-author of the book “From the bottom of our hearts”. But the damage was done.

Francis fired Gaenswein, Benedict XVI’s longtime secretary, from his second job as head of the papal household.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, the book’s lead author and critic of Francis, suffered a reputational blow for apparently manipulating Benedict in a way that hurt both popes.

Critics noted that retired bishops at least have official Vatican guidelines to follow and said there should be similar guidelines for future retired popes.

These directives read as follows: “The bishop emeritus will take care not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the diocese. He will want to avoid any attitude and relationship that might even suggest a kind of authority parallel to that of the diocesan bishop, with harmful consequences for the pastoral life and the unity of the diocesan community.

While allowing some protocols to be developed for future popes, Benedict’s longtime spokesman said the problems that arose during his longer-than-expected retirement were few.

“From where I stand, everything went extremely well,” Reverend Federico Lombardi said. “If you think of how many times there were problems, or what they were, I remember three or four.”

He said it was clear that Francis and Benedict had an “excellent” relationship and that the retired pope’s presence in the Vatican gardens “was felt as the discreet presence of someone who had loved the church very much. and who continued to love her and pray for her.

Lombardi noted that if some people chose to exploit Benedict for their own ideological ends, or to amplify their criticism of Francis, that was their problem.

“Even if Benedict was dead, they could have said the same thing,” he said.


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