‘Resignation,’ ‘abdication’ and worries about an ‘antipope’?

I visit the Twitter-verse every now and then, but don’t munch all the way through the streams of data the way some folks do.

However, the Divine Mrs. MZ Hemingway does dwell therein and sent this tweet my way:

Grant Gallicho @gallicho

Hey @GetReligion, are you planning correcting your egregiously incorrect claims about the papal resignation? #pope

This shot over the bow refers, of course, to the item I put up the other day pointing GetReligion readers toward a post at the new website, “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.” The “guy” in question is, of course, one of the top religion-beat professionals of the late 20th Century — Richard Ostling, now retired after decades at Time and then the Associated Press.

Ostling had stressed that the proper word for the action taken the other day by Pope Benedict XVI was “abdication,” not “resignation.” The Guy added:

The timing is notable, coming just before Ash Wednesday without waiting till after Holy Week. Far more amazing is the resignation itself. Like England’s monarchs or certain other religious dynasts, popes simply do not resign. The last one who did, Gregory XII, stepped down in a 1415 A.D. emergency deal to end the ruinous Great Schism with its rival pontiffs. Benedict’s move, by contrast, was purely personal. He said he “repeatedly examined my conscience before God” and decided he lacked the physical strength for “an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Now, ever since then I have followed the debates back and forth about this about the proper translations of the Latin laws, etc., etc. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that the word “abdicate” is the appropriate term, but it would be a stretch say — as I did in the headline on my post — that “resign” has been proven wrong, or inaccurate.

In my own writing, I have been using phrases such as the “pope’s decision to end his papacy” or that he decided to “step down” from St. Peter’s throne. This is a case where copy desks are making their own decisions, which often happens when laws are written in one language and news copy is written in another.

The glass is kind of half full or half empty, at the moment, and I’m seeing some interesting points of view on both side.

Which raises another complex and even more interesting issue, in the eyes of some Catholic thinkers.

It’s clear at this point that many Catholic insiders believe that the pope’s decision to step down was not only legal, but proper in light of his health issues, energy level and the growing limitations on his ability to travel. While many Catholic progressives are in that camp — calling this a truly revolutionary act by a conservative pope — it would be way too simplistic to say that the Catholic left is arguing that view, to the exclusion of many more conservative Catholics.

It’s on the conservative side of things that matters are getting really complex and, well, I think there are some echoes of the “abdicate” vs. “resign” debate over there. The issue, bluntly, is whether it’s possible to have two men alive at the same time who have officially been given, by God, the Keys to the Kingdom. How does one “resign” a spiritual charism, a condition of spiritual being?

The Religion News Service team recently posted a link to a piece at the Italian news site called WWW.Chiesa that explored two competing visions on this side of the doctrinal aisle. One argues that it is possible, but unwise, for a pope to resign. The other takes a much more radical tact, saying that Catholics will soon — unless Benedict changes his mind — end up with an antipope.

Italian journalist and publisher Sandro Magister describes view No. 1 this way, looking at the work of historian Roberto de Mattei:

De Mattei does not contest the legitimacy of Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the pontificate. He recognizes that “it is contemplated by canon law and has been seen historically over the centuries.” And it is also founded theologically, because it puts an end not to the power of orders conferred by the sacrament, which is indelible, but only to the power of jurisdiction.

From the historical point of view, however, de Mattei maintains that the resignation of pope Joseph Ratzinger “appears to be in absolute discontinuity with the tradition and praxis of the Church”. …

“The image of the pontifical institution, in the eyes of public opinion all over the world, would in fact be stripped of its sacrality to be handed over to the criteria of judgment of modernity.” And this would achieve the objective repeatedly set forth by Hans Küng and other progressive theologians: that of reducing the pope “to the president of a board of administration, to a purely arbitral role, accompanied by a permanent synod of bishops with deliberative powers.”

Oh my, did Pope Benedict XVI really hand a major victory to one of his old theological sparring partners?

Wait, there’s more — in the views of philosopher and theologian Enrico Maria Radaelli:

The title of the commentary leaves no room for doubt: “Why pope Ratzinger-Benedict XVI should withdraw his resignation. It is not yet the time for a new pope, because it would be that of an antipope.”

Radaelli moves from the words of the risen Jesus to the apostle Peter, in chapter 21 of the gospel of John. He gathers from this that “the cross is the status of every Christian” and therefore “rebelling against one’s status, rejecting a grace received, would appear to be for a Christian a grave offense against the virtue of hope, against the grace and the supernatural value of accepting one’s human condition, all the more grave if the condition involves roles ‘in sacris,’ as is the condition, of all the most eminent, of pope.” …

It is true — Radaelli acknowledges — that canon 333 of the code of canon law establishes that a pope has the power to resign, “but I say that not even the pope has such power, because it would be the exercise of an absolute power that contrasts with being one’s very self.” And “it is impossible even for God” not to be what he is.

Needless to say, we will probably hear a bit more about this in the days ahead.

You think?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I agree, Terry. I had expected many links to Saint Malachy and that the next pope would be Petrus Romanus, comments by anti-Catholics and the like, but attacks such as Radaelli’s comes as a surprise. But now I do expect the aftershocks to reverberate for quite some time.

  • tmatt

    The key is the argument that being raised to the papacy is a kind of sacrament of ordination at another level. One cannot stop being a priest or a bishop, right? You can be defrocked, but you are still a priest in some mystical way.

    But it’s also hard for Catholic conservatives to say the canons are wrong and Benedict is wrong and, and….

    A real case where left and right are simply irrelevant. This is complex theological stuff.

    • Martha

      Not quite, tmatt. The ontological change wrought by the sacrament of Holy Orders means that “once a priest, always a priest”. But priests can be laicised, and priests can be restricted in the performance of their duties.

      And of course, if a bishop could never retire, then the whole “mandatory retirement at the age of 75″ requirement would collapse. If we can have a former Bishop of the Diocese of Blackbird Springs, succeeded by a new bishop, then we can (at least in theory) have a former Bishop of the Diocese of Rome succeeded by a new Bishop of Rome.

      To quote the old 1913 “Catholic Encylopedia”:

      “The title pope, once used with far greater latitude… is at present employed solely to denote the Bishop of Rome, who, in virtue of his position as successor of St. Peter, is the chief pastor of the whole Church, the Vicar of Christ upon earth.”

      Besides, we’ve already had a varied selection of anti-popes, in much worse and more tangled and confused situations than the present one, so I think Professor de Mattei is being a bit anxious over nothing :-)

      At the very worst: suppose Professor de Mattei is correct, and the conclave elects an ‘anti-pope”. Well, God between us and all harm, this is easily solved: upon the death of Benedict, the See of Peter will be legitimately vacant, and then either the cardinals can confirm the ‘anti’ Pope as his successor, or elect a new one (though in that case, a third candidate would be making the situation a lot worse).

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    The key is the argument that being raised to the papacy is a kind of sacrament of ordination at another level.

    No informed Catholic would make that argument, because Catholics have never considered the papacy to be a sacrament, or part of holy orders in any way — just consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church under Holy Orders. The three orders are deacon, priest and bishop. The Pope is the bishop, the bishop of a particular diocese, Rome, and there isn’t any higher version of holy orders he can have.
    If I recall correctly, canon law and the constitutions for electing a Pope state that if the man elected is a bishop, he becomes Pope with all his powers immediately on accepting the office, and if he is not a bishop, is ordained /consecrated as soon as possible, and immediately after that becomes Pope because he has obtained the proper degree of holy orders for the job. The inauguration with the conferral of the pallium is ceremonial and symbolic; it does not confer special powers or charisms, any more than the coronation in the past did.
    A description of the Pope’s office is simple: he is bishop of Rome, and therefore the successor of Peter and endowed with the powers that Jesus gave to Peter, and he loses those powers if he leaves office, as they are conferred on the office, not the person. I think the term journalists should be using: he “renounced the Petrine office (or ministry)”; these are Benedict’s own words; it’s also the judgment of the Dominican on EWTN tonight.

  • Will

    As Alice said, “*I* don’t believe there is an atom of meaning in it.”

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Sorry, I only noticed tmatt’s comment and didn’t read the whole story until just now . . ! The objections raised by de Mattei and Radaelli strike me as trivial and even ridiculous. They both agree that in regard to canon law and sacramental charisms, there is no objection to a Pope stepping down — as I myself just explained. But then de Mattei claims that his objection to Benedict’s renunication is “historical.” How can that be true if, as everyone admits, Popes have renounced the office in the past? Does he regard these actions as valid, or doesn’t he?
    A little knowledge of Church history and politics might be helpful here. Both de Mattei and Radaelli, if I remember rightly, are part of the Church’s traditionalist wing, and are the types who think something being “traditional” means it can’t be changed without the world ending. (They confuse two things that the Church keeps separate: “tradition”, that is, things we do because we’ve done them for as long as we can remember, and “Tradition” or the body of teaching handed on by Jesus to his apostles and by them through the centuries to us, not all of which is in Sacred Scripture.
    These traditionalists were upset (and many still are) at discontinuation of the crowning of the Pope with the triple tiara, the sedia gestatoria, etc., because it removes the sacrality of the office, diminishes the visible display of power and harms the Pope’s authority. Well, it’s been quite a while now since they originally claimed this, and I don’t see any sign of this happening. Most people would say that when Pope Paul VI gave his tiara away for charity, and John Paul I refused to be crowned and announced at his inauguration that his authority was a service to all, the papacy gained enormously in spiritual prestige and power.
    My answer to traditionalist claims like these is always “Do you think dissenters like Hans Kung would be any more likely to obey the Pope if he wore the tiara?” I don’t get many takers. It’s the very idea of the authority itself Kung objects to, not the trappings of it.
    Sorry to go on and on like this, but I just wanted everyone to be clear that objections like these would not be considered valid by most Catholics and don’t have a leg to stand on.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    You may want to check out the statement of an eminent canon lawyer, one Bishop Thomas Paprocki, the Bishop of Springfield in Illinois, which can be found here: http://piadesolenni.com/bp-paprocki-march-madness-how-to-address-b16-after-feb-28/ He is clear that “resignation” is the right term, and “certainly not abdicate.”

    Re the Pope’s ontology, I made the following comment over at The Guy’s blog:
    There is some confusion over the ontological nature of the Papacy. Catholic theology only discusses ontological change when it comes to sacramental issues. So baptism, confirmation and ordination all confer graces which grant a permanent spiritual/sacramental character in the person. Once baptized, confirmed or ordained, you cannot be unbaptized, unconfirmed or unordained because there has been a permanent alteration in your soul. (Priests who have been laicized (“defrocked” in popular parlance, but that’s not a Catholic term) are simply returned to the lay state, but they have not lost their priestly character and can still hear confessions and grant absolution in life and death situations.)

    The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. Like every other bishop, he has received the fullness of orders, but there is no particular *sacramental* grace or character which is given him for his office in the See of Peter. So no, he will not ontologically be THE POPE once he leaves office.

  • Julia

    Lori and Thomas have explained the situation very well. Chiesa is an invaluable blog, but sometimes Magister gives space to what is being said around Italy without giving his endorsement. It is an interesting situation and a thorough thinking-through of what the Papacy actually is will be very worthwhile in the long run. The monarchical trappings have been slowly falling off since John XXIII. I’m guessing the next to go might be hand kissing and black clothes for women meeting the Pope unless they are royalty (e.g. the Spanish Queen is privileged to wear white). The Pope has not been the sovereign of a significant amount of real estate since the unification of Italy. Keeping up those protocols was a thumbing of the nose to the Italian conquerors – it’s time for them to go.
    AND Benedict’s statement in the prefaces to his books on Jesus was a powerful reminder about the limits of a man who holds the office of Pope. A Pope is not partially or quasi-divine as some news articles are saying. So much for the alleged Rottweiler stuck in the Middle Ages.

  • Julia

    Should have included this about what Benedict said in those prefaces:
    “Benedict’s statement in the prefaces to his books on Jesus – that people were free to disagree with him”

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Thanks, Julia! (for what you said about me, and for what you said about my comments).

    I hope that people got that I was referring to the coronation and such as “small-t” tradition, though I didn’t really specify. (No Mollie, you don’t need to make any more corrections).

    I didn’t really deal with Radaella’s objections; as far as I can tell, his words are almost complete gibberish. Meant to be “mystical,” I suppose. Would renouncing the office be renouncing a cross or a grace given?
    Renouncing a particular cross, perhaps, but God always gives us another. Benedict will carry his wherever it is given.

    In regard to refusing grace, the papacy itself isn’t a grace, but an office; The grace given is not “sanctifying” but “actual” grace, the grace one receives for a particular purpose, in this case exercising an office; when you give up the office, you no longer have need of that particular grace, so no harm in renouncing it. And giving up the office is sinning against the virtue of hope? Poppycock.

    Here is how Benedict describes his “grace of office.”

    [Benedict]: As pope one has even more cause to pray and to entrust oneself entirely to God. For I see very well that almost everything I have to do is something I myself cannot do at all. That fact already forces me, so to speak, to place myself in the Lord’s hands and to say to him: “You do it, if you want it!” In this sense prayer and contact with God are now even more necessary and also even more natural and self-evident than before.

    [Seewald]: To put it in worldly terms: Is there now a “better connection” to heaven, or something like a grace of office?

    [Benedict]: Yes, one often feels that. In the sense of: Now I have been able to do something that did not come from me at all. Now I entrust myself to the Lord and notice, yes, there is help there, something is being done that is not my own doing. In that sense there is absolutely an experience of the grace of office.

    Oh dear, now I’m almost in tears writing this, as I have been more than one once these past few days.

    In the past, most Popes gave up the power of the keys and the grace of office simply by dying. It seems to be one of Pope Benedict’s unique teaching opportunities that he will explain to us specifically how this power and grace and this particular cross are renounced. He is already doing it by his actions far more than by his words. Just pay attention, everyone, in these remaining days. I trust that at the end, this dear man, in his last act on Feb 28, will say in his heart, with all simplicity to his master: “Lord Jesus, take these keys that I received from You; keep them until You give them again to my successor — long may he serve.”

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    The trouble is I always want to write a treatise rather than a comment and always leave out something in my haste! – the interview excerpt is, of course, from The Light of the World (2010).

  • ceemac

    OK this is really moving out of general news and into “insider baseball.”

    About as interesting to the the non RC as an article about Presbyterian discussions about how often general assembly should meet or the usefulness of synods in the 21st century would be to non Presbyterians.

    • Martha

      As a non-Presbyterian, I would be fascinated to learn how they see the governance of their denomination, having rejected the episcopacy as a valid office :-)

  • tmatt


    Sometimes the dense debates are where you find material that ends up SHAPING where a major story goes. But sometimes not.

    It’s beat reporting. You have to listen to a tons of people say millions of things in order to hear the details that matter.

  • Julia

    After seeing the old Mary Queen of Scots film with the confrontation between her and John Knox, I would be interested in why the Presbyterians dropped the episcopacy and how they see their governance. My mom’s family is Presbyterian. BTW We don’t call ourselves RCs.

    I think it’s relevant to wade into the weeds at this particular time since the media seem to be doing that in order to get lots of readers during the time preceding the election of the next Pope. Lots of trivia that is normally ho-hum becomes fascinating to some reporters who don’t really understand what they are reporting on. Hopefully, some of them are reading these posts and comments. I sure learn a lot here.

  • Frank

    What kind of particle is an anti-pope or a pope for that matter? If the two meet do they disintegrate in a hail of gamma photons? Is an anti-pope a time-reversed pope?

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