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Can a Pope Resign the Papacy While Still
  Remaining the Pope?

The question lingers.

by Christopher A. Ferrara
April 21, 2017

As Benedict XVI celebrates his 90th birthday — still lucid, still receiving guests, still making perfectly coherent impromptu remarks on the level of written prose, and even drinking beer — the mystery surrounding his unprecedented resignation from the papacy not only remains but deepens.

In this regard, Antonio Socci reminds us of an explosive speech by Benedict’s personal secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein, given at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome last year. On that occasion Ganswein spoke of a “dramatic struggle” during the conclave of 2005 between the “salt of the earth” party aligned with John Paul II and the so-called “Saint Gallen group” that plotted to elect Pope Bergoglio, finally succeeding following Benedict’s sudden resignation in 2013. 

Ganswein situated the “dramatic struggle” of 2005 in the context of the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s reference, just before his election in that year, to a struggle between “Christ Himself and ‘a dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing as definitive’.”  The phase “dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing as definitive” seems an apt description of the general drift of the Bergoglian pontificate thus far.

Socci also reminds us that during the same revelatory address, Ganswein referred to Benedict’s resignation as a “well-considered step of millennial importance.”  And, respecting the lightning strike on the dome of Saint Peter’s on the day the resignation was announced, Ganswein declared: “Seldom has the cosmos accompanied in a more dramatic way a turning point in history.”

Most striking of all, however, are Ganswein’s statements that the pontificate of Benedict XVI was “a pontificate of exception” in that Benedict, by renouncing only the “exercise” of the Petrine office while declaring himself to be a “Pope emeritus,” “introduced in the Catholic Church the new institution of the ‘Pope emeritus’…” This “new institution,” supposedly created solely by Benedict, means, according to Ganswein, that Benedict had “not at all abandoned this ministry” but rather “integrated the personal office with an ecclesial and synodal dimension, almost a common ministry” with his successor. 

But, Ganswein concluded in an obvious non sequitur, “There are not therefore two Popes, but de facto a broadened ministry with an active and a contemplative member.”  But how can there be a “broadened” papal ministry, involving an active and a contemplative member, unless both participants in this broadened papal ministry are Popes?  Indeed, no less than Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has declared (as Socci also notes) that “for the first time in the history of the Church we have the case of two legitimate living Popes.”

The notion is nonsense, but very telling nonsense. For if Benedict renounced the papacy on the assumption that he would remain a contemplative member of the Petrine ministry he himself was broadening for the first time in Church history, then the validity of the resignation would appear to depend entirely on his belief that he had the power to alter the very nature of the papacy by including an “emeritus” Pope therein through his own singular act, an act not rooted at all in the history or tradition of the Church.

But surely the Pope has no power thus to alter the nature of the papacy established by Christ as an office to be held by one man until his death or valid resignation (as in the case of Pope Celestine, who resumed his original name and status as a hermit). 

Now, if Benedict is wrong about the validity of his novelty, the question presents itself: How does his attempt to renounce the “active” part of the papacy while retaining the “contemplative” part not run afoul of Church law (Canon 188), which provides that “[a] resignation made out of… substantial error… is invalid by the law itself”? This is not even to discuss the element of “grave fear that is inflicted unjustly or out of malice,” which the same canon further recognizes as grounds for the invalidity of a resignation — in this case, “fear of the wolves” to which Benedict himself alluded at the beginning of his pontificate: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”  The wolves of Saint Gallen, perhaps?

Socci writes that under these bizarre circumstances it may well be that “Benedict has left it to God to write the final chapter of his story. Which could truly be very surprising.”  As I have said before on these pages, I believe we don’t know half the story of the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI.  Perhaps soon, however, we will know it all.