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A Quasi-Pope?

by Christopher A. Ferrara
March 1, 2013

The See of Peter is now vacant and the Church will be without a Pope until the next one is elected. But in his last audience address on February 27, Pope Benedict XVI introduced some ambiguity into the matter, as did his entire decision to resign while retaining his papal garb — the white cassock — his papal name, Benedict XVI, and even the title His Holiness. (In terms of outward appearances, it seems the only changes will be Benedict's residence and the color of his shoes — no longer red but brown.)

As the Pope remarked during his last public audience, when he became Pope on April 19, 2005 “I was always and forever committed for the Lord. Always — those who assume the Petrine ministry no longer have any privacy. Always and totally [they] belong [] to everyone, the entire Church. His life is, so to speak, totally deprived of the private sphere.” But, he went on to say:

The “always” is also a “forever” — there is no return to the private [life]. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry does not revoke this fact. I am not returning to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but I am remaining at the foot of the Crucified Lord. I will no longer vest the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer rest, so to speak, in the yard of St. Peter. St. Benedict, whose name I bare as Pope, is a great example of this. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.

What is one to make of this affirmation? The statement that Benedict's abdication of the papacy represents merely “forego[ing] the exercise of active ministry” is curious. Will the new title of “Pope Emeritus” have some sort of passive ministry, and will it be, passively, some sort of papal ministry?

Notice, moreover, the ambiguous, and I must say rather disturbing, phraseology: “I will no longer vest the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer rest, so to speak, in the yard of St. Peter.” What is the meaning of this distinction between “the power of the office” of Pope and the office itself?

Further, if the papacy was the cross that God laid upon Benedict's shoulders in 2005, how can it be the case that he is “not abandoning the cross” by renouncing the papal office, as he states he is doing in the announcement of his resignation? Does Benedict mean to imply that in some way he has not renounced the papacy entirely? Is this why he will retain the name, title, and garb of his office?

I do not mean to suggest that Benedict is implying that he will, in some legal or juridical sense, remain Pope. But there is an implication here of some kind of ontological papal residuum, so to speak, that remains in him even now. Yet, unlike the Sacrament of Holy Orders or the Sacrament of Baptism, election to the papacy leaves no indelible mark on the soul.

So, why does Benedict thus muddy the waters instead of simply making it clear that he will cease entirely to be Pope — rather than simply losing the power of the office? Do we not see here yet another example of the blurring of concepts that has plagued the Church since Vatican II, or what the genius Romano Amerio called a “loss of essences” — the clear distinction between one thing and another — in post-conciliar thinking?

Must we now accommodate an ambiguity even as to the nature of the papal office? Have we seen the emergence of the latest post-conciliar novelty in the Church: the quasi-Pope? The “retired Pope” who in some vague way remains a Pope of sorts? Does this make any more sense than “retired King”? Or is this just another way of signaling the rejection of the traditional teaching on the monarchical character of the papacy, which reflects the monarchical constitution of the universe itself?

Am I being unreasonable? The thought occurred to me. But just after writing the column I received by email a report by Robert Moynihan, the estimable editor of Inside the Vatican, who addresses precisely this issue. He writes:

And yet, if Benedict's words of this morning mean anything — and I acknowledge that my way of interpreting the situation may seem quite mysterious and strange — they also mean that the See is not totally vacant...
I hesitate to formulate it in this way, as it may seem that I am proposing that there are two Popes, or soon could be. This is not the case. Rather, there are emerging two ways of exercising the Petrine office, one of action, the other of prayer and contemplation.
In this interpretation, the new Pope will take up the active office, while the “emeritus Pope” continues that aspect of the office which is of prayer and contemplation. This is what Benedict seems to be saying — disconcerting, perplexing, confusing as it may seem.

Disconcerting, perplexing and confusing indeed! But after years of confusion in the Church, often remarked by Benedict himself, what we need is clarity, utter clarity, once again.

Let us pray that the next Pope restores the “Yes, yes, no, no” that Our Lord enjoins upon all the members of the Church He founded. The first step in that regard will be to do at last what Our Lady asked of the Pope at Fatima nearly a century ago — a centenary that should fill us with apprehension as one Pope abdicates and is replaced by another.