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A Farcical Resignation?

by Christopher A. Ferrara
May 5, 2017

During a presentation of the book Pope of Courage, concerning the brief and mysteriously terminated reign of Benedict XVI, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of New Evangelization, dropped this little bombshell:

“I do not share the expression ‘Pope Emeritus’ that theologically poses more problems than it solves.  There may be other Popes in the future who will present their resignation. How can one say that this will not happen? But if it should happen, I think you should use some other term. And in any case I do not intend to use it and I will not use the expression ‘Pope Emeritus’ here.”

Consider the implications: the President of a Pontifical Council publicly pronounces to be theologically suspect the very concept of the “Pope Emeritus” literally invented by Benedict to characterize the outcome of his unprecedented renunciation of the “active” “ministry of the Bishop of Rome” while retaining — so he maintains — its “passive” aspect of prayer and contemplation.

Fisichella is right, of course. The concept of a “Pope Emeritus” does indeed create more problems than it solves. It will not do to say that the title “Pope Emeritus” is akin to the title “Bishop Emeritus”­ — itself a novelty of the post-conciliar epoch, along with the mandatory “retirement” age for bishops (as Fisichella himself observes). For at least a “Bishop Emeritus” is still a bishop, who received the ineradicable fullness of priestly orders at the time he was consecrated by the laying on of hands. He will thus be a bishop until he dies, so that even after he ceases to exercise the jurisdiction of a local ordinary it would still be proper to refer to him as Bishop X or “Your Excellency.”

But a Pope who is elected by a conclave is not the object of a sacrament that leaves an indelible mark upon his soul, but merely an election that designates him the holder of an office, albeit the highest office in the Church. That is why none of the few Popes who have resigned in the past declared themselves popes “emeritus” but rather simply resumed the status they had before their election. For example, consider the case of Pope Celestine V, who resigned on account of his own incompetence and resumed the use of his given name, Pietro Angelerio; or the case of Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in order to bring an end to the Great Western Schism when there were three rival claimants to the papal throne (including anti-Pope John XXIII, who also resigned), thereafter becoming the Bishop of Porto by appointment of the same cardinals who had elected him Pope.

What are we to make of Benedict’s resignation on the apparent understanding that, as he sees it, he is still in some sense the Pope, while claiming — nonsensically, one must say in all candor — that there is only one Pope, and that is Francis? What are we to think when the head of a Pontifical Council politely dismisses as theological hooey the very idea of a “Pope Emeritus,” refusing even to use the term Benedict applies to himself?

I propose no definitive answer to these questions. One thing definitely occurs to me, however: If nothing else, the “resignation” of Benedict XVI, who happily sips beer in the Vatican and delivers perfectly coherent remarks on his 90th birthday, while dressed in the papal white, is a farce of historical proportions — a farce which Fisichella himself has revealed as such by simply dismissing Benedict’s entire theological construction as if it were of no account whatever. (By the way, so much for Benedict’s vow that following his resignation he would be “hidden from the world.” The world is even informed of his birthday party, complete with video.)

History will render the final judgment on the theological and juridical significance of this farce. Or perhaps the answer is already revealed in the integral Third Secret, which undoubtedly involves the Blessed Virgin’s explanation of the ecclesial chaos we now witness.