Some Thoughts on Papal Resignations – and “BiP”

Eamonn Clark, STL

Speculation abounds as to the possibility of a Francis resignation very soon, what with all the things going on – an extraordinary consistory, seemingly frantic reforms, a potentially symbolic trip to L’Aquila, and his unfortunately and obviously declining health – but on the other hand, he is still making plans for various travels in the future, after August. Bizarre.

Given the occasion, I have some thoughts on the idea of papal resignations in general which I thought I’d share.

To begin with, I think it is extremely clear that Benedict XVI validly resigned the papacy, and I believe just as well that Francis was validly elected. I have talked about this on these pages twice, here and here. I also point the reader to Steven O’Reilly’s work on the topic, of Benedict’s resignation in particular, which is extensive. See also Prof. Feser’s work on this.

When one looks at the text of the Declaratio, especially together with the text of Normas Nonnullas, published shortly afterward, it seems to be quite clear that, despite whatever theories Cardinal Ratzinger privately entertained about a “bifurcation” of the papacy before his election (which he apparently did), this is simply not what he intended, given his public words.

I would add too a canonical observation: it seems that categories like “substantial error” and “grave fear/coercion” with respect to papal resignations have a higher bar to clear than with respect the resignation of other offices. The famous “Beal Commentary” on the 1983 CIC talks about substantial error in resignations as being either from cause/motive, or from the essential character of resignation/its effects. So, cause or effect. The example given is a diocesan finance officer who mistakenly thinks he must resign upon the appointment of a new bishop, when he actually does not need to do so. Such a resignation is invalid from its cause. The case with the Benedict XVI bifurcation theory would be an error of effect, supposing, as I do, that the papacy, being the exterior and visible sign of ecclesiastical unity, cannot be split into two offices, one contemplative, one active, or one as “Bishop of Rome” and one as “Vicar of Christ,” despite the fact that St. Peter was simultaneously pope and not the Bishop of Rome… Ever since, they have been linked, a custom which seems to be sanctioned by Divine law, given the obvious facts that 1, St. Peter became Bishop of Rome while he, an apostle, was still alive, thus allowing for revelation to occur publicly, which at least opens the possibility of the existence of a revealed (but not explicitly defined) datum that the ecclesiastical control of Rome is intrinsically linked to the papacy, and 2, the Church has been organized this way in every single case since St. Peter, even when popes have lived outside of Rome (i.e. Viterbo, Gaeta, Avignon), thus suggesting the existence of a Divine law of such an intrinsic link in reality.

So, if Benedict XVI really had this bifurcation thought in mind, despite publicly giving every indication to the contrary, he would indeed seem to have had what would normally be a substantial error that would suffice for the invalidity of resignation. An analogy would be a diocesan bishop saying, “I will resign the ministry of my episcopate over this diocese, but I will still retain the right to ordain licitly, by my own authority, the diocesan clergy of this diocese.” The two go hand in hand, and they cannot be separated. But when one deals with something as important as the papacy, merely ecclesiastical law – viz., the laws regulating the validity of resignations or the loss of office more generally – must be seen in relation to the Divine laws which govern what the papacy is, and they must be seen in the light of the immense importance of the papacy for the health of the universal Church. The “hermeneutic of common sense” is very important… If one pope stops pope-ing, and another guy starts pope-ing, then the strong presumption has to be that the second guy is pope. In the history of the Church, there have been clear cases of false papal claimants, and there have been cases which were less clear, such as in the Western schism… But then there have been cases which, to us with our fancy CIC, would seem clearly to be cases of anti-popes usurping power, such as due to exile or simony (both of which happened with Benedict IX – who then left office for a third time by abdication, dying repentant in a monastery)… Well, here is some common sense: if another guy started pope-ing, and the Church went along with it, then the second guy was pope. It seems God sanctions the common sense hermeneutic when it becomes too difficult to know otherwise who is in fact the Successor of St. Peter. So, even accepting the hypothesis that Benedict XVI was pressured in this way or that, and had a rather significantly erroneous understanding of the papacy which informed his intentions in abdicating, his resignation would not therefore have been necessarily invalid. Anyway, that is my take.

All this stuff brings me to the next point. Popes should not resign. It’s a bad idea. It causes so much confusion, even schism. Benedict said his strength was failing him to such a degree he felt he couldn’t do the job well enough anymore – he had seen what was done by opportunists while John Paul II was dying, and he didn’t want it to happen under him… But somehow, the Church has gotten along just fine for millennia with popes who died in office, likely some who were for a long while in hospice, perhaps popes so decrepit they couldn’t even speak, and probably a handful of popes who even slipped into dementia or suffered from Alzheimer’s. The difference is, in fact, the precedent set by John Paul II especially, and to some extent his immediate predecessors (especially Paul VI). The papacy has not normally been what these men lived it as – traveling here and there, speaking publicly all the time, and being deeply involved in the affairs of the worldwide Church (such as personally appointing every bishop). It does have its advantages, but it also brings large risks with it… If popes were to recede more into the background, with a real and healthy kind of decentralization of power, gathering truly exemplary men to assist them in the curia, then there would be fewer problems with popes staying in office with declining health, whether it’s physical health, mental health, or both.

Anyway, we pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and for Pope Francis, and his successors.

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