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Kenneth E. UntenerMarch 25, 2000
Pope Benedict XVI reads his resignation in Latin during a meeting of cardinals at the Vatican in this Feb. 11, 2013, file photo. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Editor’s note: The following essay appeared in the March 25, 2000, issue of America. On Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict announced his resignation from the See of Saint Peter, becoming pope emeritus. Read more about that decision: 
A Historic Departure: Reflections on Benedict XVI’s surprise decision to resign

Should there be a pope emeritus? What Pope Benedict’s retirement says about future former popes

Pope John Paul II will celebrate his 80th birthday on May 18, 2000. This has generated speculation about his possible resignation, which in turn has prompted many Catholics to ask how it is that a pope could no longer be pope. The purpose of this article is not to discuss whether John Paul II will or should resign, nor is it intended to be a full exposition of the Petrine office. It is simply an opportunity to learn more about the papacy by examining some of the questions that I have heard people ask when the possibility of the pope’s resignation comes up.

Could a pope resign?

Yes, and some popes have in fact resigned. The number is debated because of historical uncertainties (most cases go back many centuries). One instance of which we are sure is that of Celestine V, who resigned in 1294 after serving less than six months as pope. He was a monk and wanted to live a life of solitude.

Much to the surprise of many people, current church law explicitly provides for the resignation of a pope: “If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he make the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone” (Canon 332.2).

If a pope resigns and another is elected, are there in effect two popes?

No, there are not. It is most helpful here to note that a person is not ordained pope as though this were a fourth category in the sacrament of orders: deacon, priest, bishop, pope. Rather, he is elected bishop of Rome. (If the person elected by the cardinals were not a bishop, he would be ordained one so that he could be the bishop of Rome.) Canon law puts it this way: “The Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power in the Church by means of legitimate election accepted by him, together with episcopal consecration; therefore, one who is already a bishop obtains this same power from the moment he accepts his election” (Canon 332.1).

Thus, a person is pope because he has a particular office—bishop of Rome. Contrast this with, say, the Dalai Lama. He is believed by his followers to be the incarnation of a Buddhist deity. In their eyes he is in himself a special person, not a person with a special office. The pope, on the other hand, has this special office because he is bishop of Rome. When he is no longer bishop of Rome, he no longer is pope.

If the pope retired, what would he be called?

The title Pope (from the Greek pappas, “father”) was a term of affection used of bishops from early times. By the 12th century, it had come to be understood as particularly appropriate for the bishop of Rome, because his diocese was the center of ecclesial unity. (Hence also the title Holy Father.)

There are no guidelines on what we would call a retired pope. It would seem appropriate to give him an honorary title. We attach emeritus to a title we give someone who has the honor but not the power of a previous position (e.g., pastor emeritus). He might appropriately be called Pope Emeritus.

If the pope resigns and another is elected, do we have two successors of Christ on earth?

Christ does not have a “successor.” He is not retired. His last words in Matthew’s Gospel are: “I am with you all days, even to the end of the age.” The Second Vatican Council, speaking of the church in its “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (1964), says, “The head of this body is Christ” (No. 7).

The pope is the successor of Peter or, more properly, the vicar of Peter. In many ways the role of the Twelve was unique, and did not admit of successors. On the other hand, they were to have successors in their mandate to preach the Gospel, make disciples, baptize and teach all that Jesus had taught them. It is in fulfilling this mandate that bishops are the successors of the apostles, and the pope is the successor to Peter as the leader of the church of Rome.

In the funeral Mass for a pope, he is referred to as the vicar of Peter: “May your servant, [name], our Pope, vicar of Peter, and shepherd of your Church, who faithfully administered the mysteries of your forgiveness and love on earth, rejoice with you forever in heaven.”

Peter, in addition to being a member of the Twelve, was given by Christ the responsibility to support the unity of the Twelve. He was one of them, but also their leader. He eventually went to Rome where he was martyred sometime in the 60’s. The Apostle Paul also spent his last years in Rome and was martyred there at about the same time.

The Church of Rome (we would say “Diocese of Rome”) enjoyed special regard because it preserved not only the tombs of Peter and Paul, but their apostolic tradition—all that had been handed on. Other dioceses were committed to teach and live the apostolic tradition, and their unity with the Church of Rome was a sign that they were faithful to this tradition. Rome became the center of the communion of all the churches with one another. Because of the special standing of the Church of Rome, its bishop was recognized as a special witness and minister to the tradition of the Apostles, and to the unity of the churches. We refer to this distinctive role as the Petrine office.

Isn’t it more accurate to say that he is the vicar of Christ?

The title Vicar of Christ has been used of all bishops since the early centuries. John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, uses this title for bishops: “When the Catholic Church affirms that the office of the Bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, she does not separate this office from the mission entrusted to the whole body of bishops, who are also ‘vicars and ambassadors of Christ.’ The Bishop of Rome is a member of the ‘College,’ and the Bishops are his brothers in the ministry” (No. 95).

A pope who resigned, insofar as he would still be a bishop, would continue to be a vicar of Christ. As we saw above, the designation that is distinctive of the bishop of Rome is “Vicar of Peter,” a title and role that a pope would no longer have after his resignation.

Would a retired pope still be infallible?

Infallibility is a gift given to the church as a whole. It is exercised by the pope when he defines a doctrine to be believed by all the faithful, but it is not a gift given to the pope as a personal quality. It is noteworthy that at the First Vatican Council (1869-70), the title of the section on infallibility was changed from “The Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff” to “The Infallible Magisterium [i.e., teaching authority] of the Roman Pontiff.”

The bishop of Rome, because of his office, can give expression to the faith of the church and exercise the infallibility with which the church is endowed. It is helpful to look closely at the key paragraph on this in Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” Much of this paragraph was taken word for word from Vatican I. Note the careful distinctions highlighted here in italics:

This infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining a doctrine of faith and morals extends as far as extends the deposit of divine revelation…. This is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter. Therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person. Rather, as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, as one in whom the charism of the infallibility of the Church herself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of bishops when that body exercises supreme teaching authority with the successor of Peter. (No. 25)

Once again, the distinction between the person and the office comes into play. It is because of his relationship to the entire church as bishop of Rome that the pope can exercise the gift of infallibility given to the church. If he resigns from that office, he can no longer act in this way.

He may be bishop of Rome, but isn’t the pope also bishop of the whole church?

The vicar of Peter has specific churchwide responsibilities because, as bishop of Rome, it is his distinctive role to minister to the unity of the whole church. However, he is not “bishop of the world,” as though the world were all one diocese. In 1875, shortly after Vatican I, Prince Otto von Bismarck of the German Empire sent a dispatch to all his diplomatic representatives saying that the council had in effect given to the pope episcopal rights in each diocese and substituted pontifical jurisdiction for that of the bishops.

The German bishops subsequently issued a statement noting that “the pope is bishop of Rome, not bishop of any other city or diocese, not bishop of Cologne or of Breslau….” Pope Pius IX praised the German bishops’ statement and expressed his full agreement.

We do not have a pope who, among other things, is the bishop of Rome. We have the bishop of Rome who, because of his election as bishop of Rome has the responsibility of carrying out the Petrine office. It is because of the relationship of the Diocese of Rome to the dioceses of the world that he has a unique status among his brother bishops.

Thus, Bishop of Rome is his proper title.

If the pope resigned, could he appoint his own successor?

There are clear procedures for the selection of the bishop of Rome: He is to be elected by the cardinals. Since John Paul II would still be a cardinal, he would be able to join the other cardinals in casting a vote for the next bishop of Rome.

However, if he resigned on or after his 80th birthday he would no longer be eligible to vote, because only cardinals under 80 can participate in a papal election.

If a pope resigns from being pope, what is he?

We have to sort out what is attached to the person, and what is attached to the office. This isn’t complicated. We can parallel it to any bishop who resigns as head of a diocese.

In 1984, for example, the Rev. Adam Maida was ordained and installed as bishop of Green Bay. His ordination as a bishop was permanent. His appointment to head the Diocese of Green Bay was not. This ceased in 1990 when he was appointed archbishop of Detroit. (An arch-bishop, in addition to heading a diocese, also has some responsibilities in reference to the surrounding dioceses. These dioceses constitute a province, and the archbishop is metropolitan of that province. An example of his responsibilities would be calling and chairing meetings of the diocesan bishops of the province to deal with matters of common concern.)

In 1994 Archbishop Maida was made a cardinal, a personal honor given to him. This gave him certain additional responsibilities, most notably to participate in the election of a pope. The appointment as cardinal, unlike the appointment as metropolitan, did not automatically go with being archbishop of Detroit. It was personal.

If, some years from now, Cardinal Maida resigns as head of the Archdiocese of Detroit, he no longer has the powers specifically associated with that appointment. In other words, he would no longer have the power to govern the Archdiocese of Detroit. And, because his role as metropolitan of the province was linked with being archbishop of Detroit, he would no longer have that role either. He would still be a bishop, however, because of his ordination, and still a cardinal because that was an honor given to him personally.

We can now apply these same principles to the pope. In 1958 Pope John Paul II, then a priest of the Archdiocese of Krakow, was ordained an assistant bishop of Krakow. He was appointed archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and he was created a cardinal in 1967. Then on Oct. 16, 1978, he was elected bishop of Rome.

If he resigns as bishop of Rome, all the responsibilities and powers linked with that office are no longer his. He is therefore no longer: vicar of Peter; head of the college of Bishops; patriarch of the West; primate (i.e., chief bishop) of the bishops of Italy; metropolitan of the dioceses surrounding Rome; or head of Vatican City State.

He would remain a bishop and a cardinal.

Where would a pope live after resigning?

The bishop of Rome is a member of the Conference of Italian Bishops. If he resigns, he continues as a member of that episcopal conference. He may want to stay among them. However, he is free, as any retired bishop is free, to live wherever he wishes.

* * *

The Petrine office is a gift of God to the church. The more we understand it properly, the more we appreciate its worth. The Lord assured us: “I have much more to tell you but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak only what he hears, and will declare to you the things to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he declares to you” (Jn 16:12-15).

This gift of the Spirit has been given to the whole church, and because of this the believing community can be united in one faith. If this unity of faith is to be more than an abstraction, we need the competent exercise of authority in the church. We believe that this has been given to us in the Petrine office as well as in the whole body of bishops acting together with the pope.

We need the work of theologians, the plurality of various schools of thought, the sense of the faith that exists in believers around the world. But we have to be able to rise above the restricted outlook of one or the other of these expressions of the faith. We need to learn from one another, but also to know the difference between a particular school of thought and the doctrine of the believing church. The Petrine office is a ministry within the church that enables us to do this.

But it has to be seen in its fullness. Our faith does not rest upon one person, or upon one office in the church that acts alone or with only one part of the church. When we see the Petrine office in its fullness, we rediscover a treasure that is too often obscured and made less believable because it is popularly perceived as isolated, individual or quasi-magical.

The Petrine office deserves our respect, as does the person who exercises that office. There are some who can so focus on the person of a particular pope with whom they have some disagreement that they become disrespectful of the office. There are others who in their agreement with a particular pope so focus on the person that they risk future disrespect if his successor is not to their liking.

A clearer understanding of the church’s teaching on the nature of the Petrine office enhances it. It has a positive effect, not a negative one. Such an understanding lays the groundwork for a fuller sense and use of collegiality without fear. It also makes the Petrine office more believable for Catholics, and widens the door to greater ecumenical understanding.

In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II committed himself “to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation” (No. 95). It could be that the discussion generated by considering even the possibility of his resignation will itself be that “new situation” which helps all of us to arrive at a restored and refreshed understanding of the Petrine office.

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