Pope Benedict’s announcement yesterday that he is resigning has taken the world by surprise. In response, I’ve already heard a number of questions, and it seemed wise to create a basic Q&A to clarify any confusion you might have about papal resignation.
Q: Can the Pope Resign?
A: The first reaction several people expressed to Benedict’s resignation was “I didn’t know the pope could do that!” At least one person has told me that Benedict was supposed to have consulted with the College of Cardinals first. No doubt, Benedict’s resignation comes as a shock, but canon law actually contemplates the possibility of a papal resignation, and it doesn’t require consulting anyone:
Can. 332 §2. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.
Obviously, this canon exists for a reason. If that wasn’t enough, there have been a handful of popes throughout history who have resigned: Benedict IX, Gregory VI, St. Celestine V, and Gregory XII.
Q: Why is Benedict Resigning?
A: Unfortunately, the Internet was almost immediately abuzz with baseless scandal-mongering. For example, one of the first questions I was asked was, “Is this to ensure that we don’t find that Benedict was involved in abuse cover-ups?”
Regarding the sex-abuse scandal specifically, it’s worth remembering that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the strongest forces for good within the Church on this issue. And Phil Lawler, whose book analyzing the sex abuse scandal is the best that I’ve seen yet, has been clear on Benedict’s positive role here.
More generally, I know that scandal-mongering on all sides will view as proof of (insert pet cause or rumor), as scandal-mongers often do. But there’s no evidence for any of it. Instead, the facts are pretty clear:
- Pope Benedict, at age 85, is the fourth oldest pope, at least out of the last seven hundred years. By way of comparison, Pope John Paul II died at age 84.
- Although he was expected to have a short reign (being 78 when he was elected), Benedict has already served a longer-than-average pontificate. The average pontificate lasts about 7.2 years. Benedict will have served 7.86 years.
- That Benedict’s health has been declining is no secret. Back in October 2011, Benedict began using a rolling platform in processing down the aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the time, CWN noted that “at the age of 84 he has slowed noticeably.” That was well over a year ago.
- The modern papacy isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when a pope never needed to leave Italy (or even Vatican City). But both Paul VI and John Paul II were globe-trotting popes, accessible to the Catholic faithful all over the world. This aspect of the modern papacy requires a certain physical stamina no longer possible for Pope Benedict, whose doctor has forbidden him from transatlantic travel, presumably including events like the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
- Benedict has long argued that the modern papacy may call for the resignation of an infirm and dying pope. For example, a few years back, Benedict told Peter Seewald: “If a Pope clearly realises 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.” Seewald included this interview in his 2010 book Light of the World. Maybe we should have paid more attention, in hindsight.
- Certainly, Benedict’s resignation sounds very much like his statement to Seewald, remarking that “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 to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
|Pope Gregory XII, the last pope to resign.|
Q: When was the Last Time that a Pope Resigned?
A: One reason Benedict’s announcement is such a surprise is that the last papal resignation was in 1415. put another way, the last time a pope resigned, Protestantism didn’t exist, and the New World hasn’t been discovered.
Q: What will we call Pope Benedict After he resigns?
A: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. [Update: I may have spoken too soon on this one. While this was the initial report, there’s now talk about “Bishop of Rome, emeritus,” and keeping “Your Holiness” as an honorific. That may not be settled until the next papacy.] He will remain a Cardinal, and a member of the College of Bishops… just as any other Bishop-emeritus remains a bishop.
Q: Where will Ratzinger Go?
A: First, to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo. Then, once renovations are complete, he will move into a cloistered convent located within Vatican City. This is according to Fr. Lombardi, Vatican Spokesman (h/t Commonweal).
Q: Will Cardinal Ratzinger Vote for the Next Pope?
A: Not according to Fr. Lombardi. Benedict will take no part in the conclave at all.
Speaking of the conclave, I’ll do another Q&A soon on the upcoming papal election, so feel free to add any questions you have (about the resignation or election) in the comments below.
And, of course, have a blessed Lent!
Update: I have finalized the Q&A on the papal conclave.