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The Cheshire Pope

by Christopher A. Ferrara
February 6, 2015

"Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life.”

Thus exclaimed Alice during her sojourn in Wonderland. But here in the real world there is something even more curious than the Cheshire Cat, whose grin could be detached from his body. In the Catholic Church, for the first time in her history, we have witnessed a papal resignation by a Pope who asserts that he nevertheless retains something analogous to the Cheshire Cat’s disembodied grin: the papal office, minus all the powers of the office.

In my last column I noted that the canonist Fr. Stefano Violi, in his study of the unprecedented resignation of Benedict XVI, showed that Benedict has ventured the
“absolute novelty” of a “renunciation limited to the active exercise of the papal munus [office] while retaining a passive spiritual exercise of the office consisting of prayer and suffering the infirmities of old age.”  As Violi puts it, Benedict’s declaration of his resignation distinguishes “between an administrative-ministerial executio (agendo and loquendo [acting and speaking])” of the papal office and “a more spiritual one (orando and patiendo [praying and suffering or endurance]).”

But how is it possible for a Pope to resign only from the active exercise of his office while retaining a passive spiritual function without remaining in some sense still a Pope?  Violi argues that the Pope’s plenary power includes the power to divest himself of the power to act and speak, to teach and govern the Church, while remaining able to pray and suffer as Pope — that is, as a Pope Emeritus, which the Church has never seen before.    

Our Lord, however, founded His Church on the Rock of Peter.  He made no provision for something less than a rock who is nonetheless still considered in some sense a Pope.  At any rate, the argument is clearly nonsensical.  For if a Pope could use his plenary power to divest himself selectively of his powers to teach and govern, but not simply the office of the papacy as such, then ipso facto he would still be a Pope, and we would have, therefore, two Popes living at the same time: that is, two Rocks of Peter: the “active” one and the “passive” one.

Citing precisely the Cheshire Cat, quantum physicists at the Vienna University of Technology claim to have separated the magnetic “moment” of a neutron (its susceptibility to being rotated by an external magnetic field) from the neutron itself, in an analogy to the Cheshire Cat being able to separate its smile from itself. I make no comment on the claimed discovery except to note that in macro versus the quantum world such effects do not occur: the qualities of things cannot be separated from the things of which they are qualities.  For example, one cannot say that he has sold his automobile but not its size, shape or color.

How, then, can a Pope say that he has renounced all the power of the papacy but not its spiritual function? Has the human element of the Catholic Church gone through the Looking Glass into a realm in which there can be a “spiritual” Pope who exists apart from, but at the same time as, a Pope who actually wields the power of the Petrine office?

As we contemplate the previously unheard-of concept of a Cheshire Pope living in the Vatican alongside another Pope — neither of them, tellingly, residing in the Apostolic Palace — we are reminded yet again of that famous phrase of Sister Lucia’s describing the state of the Church now in the midst of the unfolding of the Third Secret of Fatima: “diabolical disorientation” of members of the hierarchy, reaching even the very summit of the Church. 

For this reason the Church most urgently needs the Virgin’s own words pertaining to the Third Secret, not merely the vision published in 2000, which we are supposed to believe must be “interpreted” by the Vatican Secretary of State, who has absolutely no competency or authority in the matter.  It is in this missing text that the Church will receive the guidance of the Mother of God in this time of diabolical disorientation.