Thoughts on the Resignation of Benedict XVI

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Thoughts on the Resignation of Benedict XVIOn February 11, feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, Pope Benedict XVI announced to the Consistory of Cardinals and to the whole world his decision to resign from the Papacy. The announcement was received by the Cardinals, “almost in disbelief,” “with a sense of loss,” and “like a lightning bolt out of the clear blue,” as the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Cardinal Sodano put it in his address to the Pope immediately after his resignation.

If the loss felt by the cardinals was so great, one can imagine how profoundly disoriented the faithful feel these days, particularly those who have always seen Benedict XVI as a point of reference and who now feel somehow “orphaned” if not abandoned, in face of the serious difficulties the Church is going through at the present time.

Yet the possibility of a Pope resigning the Papacy was not completely unexpected. The president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Karl Cardinal Lehmann and the Primate of Belgium, Godfried Cardinal Danneels had raised the hypothesis of John Paul II’s “resignation” when his health had deteriorated. In his 2010 interview-turned-book, Light of the World, Benedict XVI told German journalist Peter Seewald that if a Pope realizes he is no longer able, “physically, psychologically and spiritually,” to discharge the duties of his office, then he has the right, and in some circumstances also a duty to resign.” In 2010, fifty Spanish theologians expressed support for the Open Letter to the world’s bishops by Swiss theologian Hans Küng. They stated:

“We believe that the pontificate of Benedict XVI is worn out. The Pope has neither the vigor nor the intellectual acumen to respond adequately to the serious and urgent problems which the Catholic Church finds that she must face. We think therefore, with due respect for his person, that he ought to submit his resignation from office.”

Between 2011 and 2012, when some journalists like Giuliano Ferrara and Antonio Socci wrote about a possible resignation of the Pope, the hypothesis aroused among readers more disapproval than consensus.

There is no doubt that a Pope has the right to resign. In its second paragraph, canon 332 of the new Code of Canon Law provides for the possibility of a Pope’s resignation:

“If the Roman Pontiff happens to resign his office, in order for his resignation to be valid it must be made freely and manifested ritually, and not merely accepted by any one.”

Furthermore, articles 1 and 3 of the 1996 Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominicis Gregis on the vacancy of the Holy See also provide for the possibility that the Apostolic See become vacant not only by the death of the Pope, but also by his valid resignation.

There are few documented cases of abdication in history. The best known case is that of St. Celestine V, the monk Pietro da Morrone, elected in Perugia on July 5, 1294 and crowned at L’Aquila the following August 29. After a reign of only five months, feeling he was not up to the office he had accepted, he thought it best to resign. So he prepared his abdication by first consulting the Cardinals and then enacting a constitution which reconfirmed the validity of the rules already established by Pope Gregory X for conducting the next Conclave.

In Naples, on December 13, he pronounced his abdication before the College of Cardinals, laid aside the papal insignia and vestments, and resumed the habit of a hermit. On December 24, 1294 Benedetto Caetani was elected Pope in his place, and took the name, Boniface VIII.

Another case of papal resignation—the last one to date—took place during the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Gregory XII (1406-1415), the legitimate Pope, in order to mend the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), sent to Constance his plenipotentiary, Carlo Malatesta to make known his intention to retire from office.

On July 4, 1415 his resignation was officially accepted by the conciliar assembly, which at the same time deposed the antipope Benedict XIII. Gregory XII was reinstated in the Sacred College with the title of cardinal bishop of Porto, ranking first, right after the pope. Once having relinquished his papal name and garb and taken up again the name of Cardinal Angelo Correr, he retired to the Marches region as papal legate and died at Recanati on October 18, 1417.

Therefore, the possibility of resignation is not scandalous of itself; it is covered by canon law and has historically occurred over the centuries. However, it should be noted that the Pope can resign from the Papacy, and historically has done so on occasion, to the extent that the Papacy is considered a “jurisdictional office of the Church” and is not indelibly tied to the person who occupies it.

In fact, the apostolic hierarchy exercises two powers that are  mysteriously united in the same person: the power of order (Holy Orders) and the power of jurisdiction (see, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 39, a. 3, resp. , III, q. 6. a. 2). Both powers are ordered to achieve the Church’s specific goals, but each has its own characteristics, which profoundly distinguish it from the other: the potestas ordinis is the power to distribute the means of divine grace and pertains to the administration of the sacraments and the conduct of official worship, while the potestas iurisdictionis is the power to govern the ecclesiastical institution and the individual faithful.

The power of order is distinguished from the power of jurisdiction not only from the standpoint of its nature and object, but also by the way in which it is bestowed, inasmuch as it is essentially conferred at the consecration, i.e., by means of a sacrament and through the impression of a sacred character. Possession of the potestas ordinis is absolutely indelible because its degrees are not temporary offices, but impart character upon those on whom it is conferred. According to the Code of Canon Law, once a baptized man becomes a deacon, priest or bishop, he is one forever and no human authority can efface this ontological condition. In contrast, the power of jurisdiction is not indelible, but temporary and revocable; its offices, under the responsibility of physical persons, cease with the termination of their mandate.

Another important characteristic of the power of order is non-territoriality, since the degrees of the hierarchy of order are absolutely independent from territorial boundaries, at least as far as the validity of its exercise is concerned. On the contrary, the offices of the power of jurisdiction are always limited geographically, and the territory is always one of their constituent elements, except that of the Supreme Pontiff, who is not subject to any geographical restriction.

In the Church the power of jurisdiction belongs, iure divino (by divine right) to the Pope and to the bishops. However, the fullness of this power resides solely in the Pope who, as its foundation, supports the whole edifice of the Church. In him is found all pastoral authority, and no other pastoral authority, independent from him, is conceivable in the Church.

In contrast, progressive theology supports, in the name of Vatican II, a reform of the Church in a sacramental and charismatic sense which pits the power of order against the power of jurisdiction, the Church of charity against the Church of law, the episcopal structure against the monarchic structure. The Pope, reduced to a primus inter pares (first among equals) within the college of bishops, would have only an ethical and prophetic function, a primacy of “honor” or “love,” but not of government or jurisdiction. From this perspective Hans Küng and others have brought up the idea of a pontificate limited in its duration and no longer for life, as the form of government required by the fast-changing pace of the modern world with its never ending series of new problems. “We cannot have an 80-year old Pontiff who is no longer fully present from the physical and mental standpoint,” Küng told the Südwestrundfunk radio station. He sees the limitation of the papal mandate as a necessary step for the radical reform of the Church. The Pope would be reduced to being the president of a board of directors, a merely arbitrating figure attached to an “open-ended” ecclesiastical structure, such as a permanent synod, which would hold the decision-making powers.

However, if one maintains that the essence of the Papacy resides in the sacramental power of order and not in the supreme power of jurisdiction, then the Pope could never resign. And if he did, he would lose by his resignation only the exercise of the supreme power, but not the power itself, which would be as indelible as the sacramental ordination from which it springs.

Anyone who admits the possibility of resignation must also admit that the Pope derives his summa potestas (supreme authority) from the jurisdiction that he exercises and not from the sacrament he receives. Therefore, progressive theology is contradictory when it claims that the Papacy is founded on its sacramental nature, and that a Pope can resign, something which can be admitted only if his commission is based on the power of jurisdiction.

For the same reason there cannot be, after the resignation of Benedict XVI, “two popes,” one in office and one “emeritus,” as some have improperly stated. Benedict XVI will return to his erstwhile status as His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and will no longer be able to exercise the prerogatives, such as infallibility, which are intimately connected with the power of papal jurisdiction.

The Pope, therefore, may resign. But is it timely for him to do so? In the July 1, 2002 issue of  La Stampa, Enzo Bianchi, certainly no “traditional” author, wrote:

“According to the great tradition of the Church of the East and of the West, no Pope, patriarch or bishop should resign merely because he has attained an age limit. True, there has been a rule in the Catholic Church for thirty-some years now which invites bishops to offer the Pope their resignation upon completing their seventy-fifth year; and while it is true that all bishops accept this invitation in obedience and submit their resignation, it is also true that their requests are normally granted and their resignations accepted. But the fact remains that this is a recent rule and practice, established by Paul  VI and confirmed by Pope John Paul  II: nothing prevents it from being revised in the future, after a discussion of the advantages and problems it has produced over the decades in which it has been applied.”


The rule that bishops resign from their dioceses at age 75 is a recent phase in the history of the Church, which seems to contradict the words of Saint Paul, for whom the Shepherd is appointed “ad convivendum et ad commoriendum” (2 Cor 7:3), to live and die in the company of his flock. In fact, the vocation of a Pastor, like that of every baptized person, is binding not merely until a certain age, or for as long he is in good health, but until his death.

In this respect, the renunciation of the Papacy by Benedict XVI appears as a legitimate act from the theological and canonical standpoint, but on the historical level as an absolute break with Church tradition and practice. From the standpoint of what the consequences might be, this gesture is not simply “innovative,” but radically “revolutionary,” as Eugenio Scalfari observed in the newspaper La Repubblica on Feb. 12. In fact, in the eyes of public opinion around the world, the image of the institution of the Papacy is being stripped of its sacredness and handed over to the criteria by which modernity judges things. It is no wonder that on the same day, in Corriere della Sera, Massimo Franco speaks about an “extreme, final, irrevocable symptom of the crisis of a system of government and a form of Papacy.”

In no way can this be compared with either Celestine V, who resigned after having been taken by force from his hermit’s cell, or with Gregory XII, who was forced to resign in order to resolve the very serious question of the Great Western Schism. Those were exceptional cases. But what is the exception in the act of Benedict XVI? The official reason, clearly stated in his words on February 11, reflects the norm rather than the exception:

“In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by issues of profound relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Peter and proclaim the Gospel, one needs strength of both mind and body, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me so that I have had to recognize my incapacity.”

Here we are not confronted with a severe disability, as was the case with John Paul II in the final days of his pontificate. The intellectual faculties of Benedict XVI are fully intact, as he demonstrated in one of his last and most significant meditations at the Roman Seminary; and his health is “generally good,” as noted by Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesman of the Holy See. However, Fr. Lombardi said that in recent times the Pope has pointed out “the imbalance between the tasks, the problems to be addressed, and the strength which he no longer feels able to muster.”

Yet, from the moment of his election, each pontiff experiences an understandable feeling of inadequacy, seeing the disproportion between his personal skills and the weight of the responsibility to which he is called. Who can say that he is capable of supporting with his own strength the munus (office) of the Vicar of Christ? However, the Holy Ghost assists the Pope not only at the time of his election, but until his death, and at every moment, even during the most difficult periods of his pontificate. Today the Holy Ghost is often invoked inappropriately, as when it is claimed that He vouches for every act and every word of a Pope or a Council. These days, however, He is notably absent from the comments in the media that assess the gesture of Benedict XVI according to a purely human criterion, as if the Church were a multinational corporation, managed in terms of sheer efficiency, regardless of any supernatural influence.

But the question is this: in two thousand years of history,  how many Popes have reigned in good health and have not seen a decline in their strength and suffered from illnesses and moral trials of all kinds? Physical well-being has never been a criterion for governing the Church. Will it be from Benedict XVI on? A Catholic cannot help wondering about these questions; and if he does not ask them, they will still be posed by the facts, for example in the next Conclave, when the choice of Benedict’s successor will inevitably be steered towards a young cardinal, in his prime, so that he can be deemed fit for the serious mission that awaits him. Unless the heart of the problem is not found in those “issues of great importance for the life of faith” referred to by the Pope, which may be alluding to the ungovernable situation in which the Church appears to be today.

In this respect, it would be unwise to consider the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI as already “concluded,” or to start making premature assessments, without first waiting for the fateful deadline he announced: the evening of February 28, 2013, a date that will be engraved in the history of the Church. Before then, but also after that date, Benedict XVI could still be the protagonist of new and unexpected scenarios. In fact, the Pope announced his resignation, but not his silence; and his decision restores him to a freedom of which he felt perhaps deprived. What will Benedict XVI or Cardinal Ratzinger say or do in the coming days, weeks and months? Most importantly, who will lead, and in what manner, the Barque of Peter in the new storms that inevitably lie ahead?

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About the Author:

Roberto de Mattei teaches Modern History and the History of Christianity at the European University of Rome, where he is Dean of History. He is also president of the Lepanto Foundation. He is the author of many books and publications, including the prize-winning and internationally famed The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten History. Many of his works have been translated into several languages. He also directs the magazines Radici Cristiane and Nova Historica and the news agency Corrispondenza Romana.

Originally published in Italian by Corrispondenza Romana on February 12, 2013 at:

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