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Benedict XVI's big decision: Can a pope really just resign?

What exactly did it mean for the pope to step down? How does it work?

Pope Benedict XVI surrounded by pilgrims at his final Wednesday General Audience in St. Peter's Square on 27 February 2013. Credit: Canonlawjunkie/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

As the world mourns former Pope Benedict XVI, who died Saturday at age 95, one aspect of the late former pope’s life is mentioned more often than any other: his 2013 resignation from the See of St Peter, which was the first time in centuries that a pope had stepped down.

But what exactly did it mean for a pope to step down? How does it work?

And what can you do with a pontiff, when he stops being a pontiff? What can you do with a pope who retires?

The Pillar explains.

So I wasn’t paying as much attention back then. What exactly happened when Pope Benedict resigned?

It was kind of an ordinary Monday morning on Feb. 11, 2013, and Pope Benedict was speaking at an ordinary consistory meeting — a gathering of the cardinals who live in Rome, at which the pontiff announced the date for the canonizations of two religious sisters, and 800 Catholics martyred in the 15 century.

But at the end of that meeting, held in the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the pontiff began to read from a single sheet of paper, dated Feb. 10, the day before.

In Latin, he addressed the College of Cardinals:

Dear Brothers,
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 barque 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.
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

As the statement was translated from the Latin in which it was delivered, the Church and the world were shocked. Benedict had resigned the papacy.

Two days later, on Feb. 13, Pope Benedict presided at his ordinary Wednesday audience, at which the pope emphasized that he had made the decision to resign “in full freedom for the good of the Church, after much prayer and having examined my conscience before God, knowing full well the seriousness of this act, but also realizing that I am no longer able to carry out the Petrine ministry with the strength which it demands.”

“I am strengthened and reassured by the certainty that the Church is Christ’s, who will never leave her without his guidance and care. I thank all of you for the love and for the prayers with which you have accompanied me. Thank you; in these days which have not been easy for me, I have felt almost physically the power of prayer – your prayers – which the love of the Church has given me. Continue to pray for me, for the Church and for the future Pope. The Lord will guide us,” Benedict said.

Later that day, Pope Benedict offered Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. At the end of the Mass, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone thanked the pontiff for his ministry, and the congregation responded with a raucous ovation.

In the weeks that followed, it emerged that Pope Benedict would live in the Mater Ecclesia Monastery within Vatican City, that he would be referred to as the Roman Pontiff Emeritus. It was also announced that the ring and seal of Benedict’s papacy would be destroyed once his resignation was effected.

On Feb. 28, with the world watching, Benedict boarded a helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the papal farm outside of Rome, where he planned to remain during the conclave to elect his successor. Pope Francis was elected on March 13, and in May Benedict returned to Vatican City, taking up residence in his monastery.

And — is that allowed?

Obviously it is, since the pope did it, and the cardinals elected him a successor!

The Code of Canon Law explains that if the pope wants to resign from his office, “it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”

Benedict emphasized more than once that he had made his resignation freely. He also made a point to manifest it in Latin, the official language of the Church, and to the College of Cardinals, the body responsible for electing his successor.

And, of course, Pope Benedict wasn’t the first to resign. There were at least five papal resignations before Benedict’s, and possibly as many as four others - getting an accurate count is difficult because some early Church records are unclear, and because there’s debate about whether Pope Sylvester III ever validly possessed the office in the first place.

But however many papal resignations you count, the point is that Benedict was not first, even if the last papal resignation was in 1415. The possibility of papal resignation has been retained explicitly in the Code of Canon Law because of the nature of the papacy itself.

Ok, but that’s the part I don’t understand. The Church says that priesthood is forever – that even a laicized priest remains a priest sacramentally. So doesn’t a resigned pope remain a pope in some sacramental, ontological, or theological way?

Isn’t Benedict kind of a pope forever, in the Order of St. Peter, or something?

Good question. Here’s the deal.

Answering this question requires understanding the difference between two related concepts in Catholic theology and law – the sacrament of holy orders, and the notion of an “ecclesiastical office.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate.”

When a person receives ordination as a deacon, priest, or bishop, something changes in him: He is made like Christ in a new way.

The sacrament of orders “configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ's instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church,” the Catechism explains.

In other words, becoming a bishop, priest, or deacon is a sacramental and supernatural change; ordination “confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a ‘sacred power’ which can come only from Christ himself through his Church.”

Once conferred, the identity of bishop, priest, or deacon can’t be lost – even if a person is retired, ill, unassignable, or even if the Church judges a person is no longer permitted to exercise any kind of sacred ministry, through the process called laicization.

In short, being a priest, bishop, or deacon is not a job, but an identity. Whether a bishop has an important job – Archbishop of New York, say – or no job at all, he remains a bishop because of the sacramental ordination he received.

But being a priest, deacon, or bishop does make a person able to take up certain jobs.

And that’s where “ecclesiastical office” comes in.

According to canon law, “an ecclesiastical office is any function constituted in a stable manner by divine or ecclesiastical ordinance to be exercised for a spiritual purpose.”

In other words, an ecclesiastical office is a particular job in the Church, created either by God, or by an ecclesiastical authority. Getting an ecclesiastical office does not involve a sacramental or supernatural change. An ecclesiastical office is an assignment – and unlike sacramental ordination, assignments can be resigned.

For some ecclesiastical offices, ordination is required.

A person can’t become a pastor, for example, unless he is a priest. And a person can’t take up the ecclesiastical office of “diocesan bishop” – Bishop of Exampleville, for example – unless he has first been sacramentally ordained a bishop.

The papacy is an ecclesiastical office – the office of the Bishop of Rome. The Church says the papacy is a divinely instituted office, established when Jesus Christ chose Peter as his vicar. And it explains that among diocesan bishops, the Bishop of Rome occupies a unique place, with unique authority and unique protection from the Holy Spirit.

The Roman Pontiff is the Bishop of the Diocese of Rome, “in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth,” according to canon law.

The papacy has the unique charism of infallibility in certain kinds of teaching, a uniquely universal set of responsibilities and prerogatives, and a unique role as the central point of unity of the Church on earth.

But for all that makes it different from other offices, the papacy is still an ecclesiastical office. It is a function, which can be taken up by a person who has been sacramentally ordained as a bishop.

And unlike the sacramental order of bishops, the papacy need not be forever – as Benedict XVI reminded the world almost 10 years ago.

Ok, but one last question — some people claim that Benedict’s resignation wasn’t really valid. What’s the deal with that?

It’s not clear how many people actually think that Benedict’s resignation wasn’t valid, but the idea does get floated from time to time, and at least a couple of prominent Catholic voices have either flirted with “Benevacantism,” or taken it up directly.

Some people have argued in recent years that Benedict didn’t intend to resign his office itself, but the duties of the office, which would be taken up by another as a kind of papal delegate extraordinaire. They point out that when Benedict announced his resignation, he talked about resigning the ministerium (ministry) of the papacy, but not the munus — a complicated Latin word which can mean office, or function, or duty, or even charism.

Those “Benevacantists” note some 2016 remarks from Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, which talked about an “expanded” Petrine Office, including “an active member” and a “contemplative.”

That speech confused some canonists and theologians, who criticized its content as inconsistent with the theology and jurisprudence surrounding the papacy, and Gänswein soon walked back some of its themes. But “Benevacantists” have tended to argue that its themes represent Benedict’s views, and suggest that the pope didn’t act freely to give up the papal office itself.

Some people who have argued against the validity of Benedict’s resignation do it from Latin grammar, claiming that Benedict used the subjunctive mood, instead of the indicative, when he announced his resignation. But interlocutors with expertise in Latin pointed out that reading was mistaken, having misunderstood a Latin “result clause.”

But before his death, Benedict himself frequently affirmed that his resignation was “a conscious choice,” and that there was one pope, namely Francis.

While “Benevacantism” has not been widespread, it has been an issue periodically raised over the last decade, and often by some of the strongest critics of the Francis papacy — some of whom argue that some of Francis’ decisions on governance are indications that he is not really the pope. Catholic theology, for what it’s worth, does not teach that papal governance is protected on matters of prudence or good decision-making by the Holy Spirit.

Of course, critics of Benedict also raised occasionally the prospect of confusion among Catholics about his role in the Church. On the few occasions when reflections from the retired former pontiff were published - notably on the abuse crisis, and on priestly celibacy - some critics argued that Benedict’s voice would leave Catholics confused about who was actually pope, even while Benedict continued to emphasize his fidelity to Pope Francis’s leadership.

But whether “confusion” about who is pope is willful or sincere, some have argued the ambiguity was compounded because the former pope continued to wear a white cassock, as popes do, and because he continued to use a title with “pope” in the name — namely “Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.”

Some observers have suggested that in the future, it might be more straightforward if a retired pope used a different title, wore the garb of a cardinal, and lived outside the Vatican. For what it’s worth, Benedict XVI frequently told people that he wanted to be called “Father Benedict,” but for some reason, it never really stuck.

Still, what a future retired pope might do is anyone’s guess — and the rules on such things will be up to him, and to the bishop who next takes up the ecclesiastical office of the papacy.

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