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Benedict Resigns – Retired Pope Q & A

[Updates since the writing of this Q & A, usually confirmation of my speculations, are included below in blue.]

The Italians have squelched the discussion of papal resignation in the past by brushing the idea aside with comments like “you cannot have a pope emeritus,” or, “what would you even do with a retired pope?”

Several question, some serious and some mere curiosities  have arisen in recent discussions, both virtually and in person here in Rome: Does the pope abdicate, resign, or retire? How does this compare to Pope John Paul II? When will the conclave be? Which cardinals can participate? What will Benedict’s new title be? What is the protocol and prerogatives for a retired pope? What role does he have in the Vatican, the college of Cardinals, or the Church? Does he retain his infallibility? Does he still wear white?

Official plans of the conclave will be publicized shortly, perhaps even today. It should not be difficult, even in the slow-moving Vatican, when many of the cardinals are already gathered for consistory. Though, at the same time, they may need a couple days to deal with the shock of the announcement. It seems only the dean of the college and a very small handful of others had notice even a day or two in advance of Monday’s announcement.

The following includes official answers where available, and speculation or suggestions where indicated.

Abdication, Resignation, or Retirement?

CIC 332§2   Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur.

CIC 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.

Though “abdication” is the term used when a monarch leaves, the term has not been used officially since the loss of the papal state, for the resignation of the popes. Though technically still an absolute monarch, as sovereign of the Vatican City-State, the pope is the bishop of Rome above all else, and therefore he “resigns.” Though, in this case, “retires” certainly seems a valid description.

[On 18 February, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, bishop of Springfield and serves on the USCCB Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, with both a JD and an STD, confirmed the correct translation is ‘resignation’ rather than ‘abdication.’]

How does this compare to Pope John Paul II?

We really should not compare the two. John Paul II showed us suffering and ageing in dignity, Benedict XVI teaches us genuine kenosis and leadership with integrity and humility. It is hard to continue a ministry that it seems the Holy Spirit has called you to when your body fails you, it is harder to let go of power so absolute.

Voices that have criticized the Holy Father for resigning, saying things like “a father does not abandon his family,” or, “Wojtyla stayed until the end because one does not come down from the cross” seem to have missed the point.

Being pope is not about suffering, but about serving. A bishop emeritus can give witness to dignified suffering and the value of the elderly, but an impeded pope cannot serve. Benedict has reminded us to separate the office from the person, putting the emphasis on the Petrine ministry, where it belongs.

When will the conclave be held?

The apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, published by Bl. John Paul II and adapted slightly by Pope Benedict XVI, governs the Conclave, the process for the election of a new pope. According to the constitution, §37,

…from the moment when the Apostolic See is lawfully vacant, the Cardinal electors who are present must wait fifteen full days for those who are absent; the College of Cardinals is also granted the faculty to defer, for serious reasons, the beginning of the election for a few days more. But when a maximum of twenty days have elapsed from the beginning of the vacancy of the See, all the Cardinal electors present are obliged to proceed to the election.

This would seem to put the earliest starting date for the conclave on 15 March, and the latest starting date on 20 March. [This was confirmed by the Vatican Press office on 13 February].

However, since the purpose of this is to allow the cardinals not in Rome to get here, and because they have been given 17 days notice from the announcement to the time the retirement takes effect, perhaps it will be decided that this interregnum could be dispensed with. [A motu proprio to this effect is being considered, as of 22 February.]

Certainly, all hope that there will be a new bishop of Rome by Holy Week, which starts 24 March.

Which cardinals will participate?

The right to elect the Roman Pontiff belongs exclusively to the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church, with the exception of those who have reached their eightieth birthday before the day of the Roman Pontiff’s death or the day when the Apostolic See becomes vacant. (UDG §33)

One cardinal turns 80 on 26 February, and that is Lubomyr Husar, the retired Major Archbishop (de facto patriarch) of the Ukranian Catholic Church. According to the text, he would be excluded from the election, for being too old by less than 48 hours. Two others turn 80 in early March, Walter Kasper (March 5) and Severino Poletto (March 18), but even if the Conclave begins after their birthdays, they would still be admitted.

What is the protocol and prerogatives for a retired pope?

There is nothing in canon law or the apostolic constitution relating this. There are some ancient canons, and the precedent of retired bishops, that will be helpful. We know just a few things at this point, and the rest is speculation. We do know that Benedict XVI will not be involved in the election of his successor, and that he will retire first to Castel Gandolfo, and then to the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican for a time.

What will Benedict’s new title be?

The pope is the bishop of Rome. That is his title, his office, and the font of all other titles and offices, from Vicar of Christ to Servant of the Servants of God. Therefore the obvious choice would seem to be “bishop emeritus of Rome” just as any other retired bishop. But that is simply this ecclesiologist’s suggestion.

[On 22 February, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the pontifical council for legislative texts, confirmed that after his retirement, he will be known as “His Holiness, Benedict XVI, bishop emeritus of Rome”.]

What role will he have in the Vatican, the college of Cardinals, or the Church?

Effectively none. In terms of protocol and precedence, one can imagine that he will be “ranked” below only the serving pope. Traditionally, popes have been forbidden from participating in the selection of their successors, and we already know he will be excluded from the coming conclave.

When a powerful leader resigns, it always seems the best practice that he or she basically disappear from the public eye for about a year, at least, to allow his or her successor to settle into the role. When the last Jesuit general retired – another office that was until recently ‘for life’ – he became a librarian in the Holy Land, and kept out of even provincial politics.  When Fr. Ted Hesburgh retired as president of Notre Dame after 35 years, he took a year-long road trip and tour, staying away from campus. Mary McAleese, after 14 years as president of Ireland came to Rome and moved into the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas to return to her studies of canon law.

Does he retain his infallibility?

The pope is not infallible. Not personally, anyway: Infallibility is not a possession or power of the pope, but a divine gift attributed to the Church as a whole, and derivatively to the college of bishops as a whole. The bishop of Rome, in communion with and head of the college of bishops, may exercise that authority in some very limited, very precise conditions, but it goes with the office, not the individual.

Will he still wear white?

I have no idea; I would expect not, but it will be curious to see what is deemed appropriate. Perhaps a black cassock or simar with white trim?

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[John Allen, Jr., adds his own Q & A after today’s lengthy press briefing here.]

Benedict Resigns – Not exactly ‘unprecedented’

Popes have resigned in the past, and more than once, despite popular mythology to the contrary, at least including:

  • Pope St. Pontian in 235

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    Pope St. Pontian, resigned in 235 AD

  • Pope Silverius in 537
  • Pope John XVIII in 1009
  • Pope Benedict IX in 1045
  • Pope Gregory VI in 1046
  • Pope Celestine V in 1294
  • Pope Gregory XII in 1415

Several others are not entirely clear whether it was resignation or deposition, including at least Pope Marcellinus in 308 and Pope Liberius in 366.

Plus there were others who are now considered antipopes who resigned, but at the time may not have been so clear who was the legitimate bishop of Rome. Some popes were deposed, others excommunicated. What I remember from history courses was that about 10% did not serve until death (and not all who did died of natural causes).

Modern popes have considered resignation as an option, most famously:

  • Pius VII in 1804 prepared a letter of resignation, to be put into effect if he was captured and imprisoned
  • Pius XII in 1943, for the same reason
  • Paul VI considered retiring at the age of 75, in 1972, to conform to the law that asked the same of all other bishops
  • John Paul II said in 1979 that he was open to the same idea, and it is said that he had a conditional document prepared as early as 1989, and again in 2000.
  • Benedict XVI told the cardinals in the days after he was elected that he would resign if necessary, and addressed it again in 2010 in his interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World

Back in 2000, ecclesiologist Fr. Richard McBrien penned an article for the Tablet, asking the question of resignation with respect to the pontificate of John Paul II. His book, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI, is one of a handful of good, contemporary resources on the topic.

We need to think more broadly than the bishop of Rome. We have seen other patriarchs and heads of churches resign, both within the Catholic Church, and in broader Christendom. All of them in positions that, in virtually all cases, were also considered normally held until death.

Consider just recently:

  • The Catholic Coptic Patriarch Antonios I Naguib resigned in January 2013, at age 77.
  • The Catholic Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly resigned in December 2012, at age 85.
  • The Catholic Maronite Patrairch Nasrallah P. Sfeir resigned in March 2011, at age 90.
  • Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury resigned, effective December 2012, at age 62.
  • Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America resigned in July 2012, at age 53.

So, while it has been almost 600 years since the last bishop of Rome willingly retired, we can and will get used to the idea. It takes remarkable integrity to lead by such strong example.

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Retired professors retire for second time

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