WWROD: No, Pope Benedict XVI did not ‘resign’

WWROD: No, Pope Benedict XVI did not ‘resign’ February 13, 2013

To my shock, no one out in cyberspace filed a pope-retirement question over at veteran religion-reporter Richard Ostling’s handy new website, “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”

Come on folks! The retired Time and Associated Press scribe is out there willing to give you input on the kinds of news-related questions that often pop up here in the GetReligion comments pages. Ostling wants to provide basic info. Take him up on it!

Lacking a question from a reader, Ostling provided his own topic.

The obvious topic for the day: The decision by the elderly Pope Benedict XVI to abdicate — not resign — the Throne of St. Peter.

Yes, “resign” is easier to fit into news headlines. The problem is that a pope has no one to resign to, other than God. The correct word is “abdicate.”

This passage struck me as especially interesting. Take it away, Ostling:

The Guy leaves it to expert Vaticanologists to assess this Pope’s accomplishments during a reign of just under eight years. But the resignation will surely be regarded as his most significant act. A highly traditional priest has taken a highly radical step. He may be implicitly questioning his close colleague and predecessor John Paul II, who felt a duty during decline to hang on till death.

Regardless, Benedict has forever changed his sacred office. All future popes will face the question of abdication when they reach a phase of physical or mental limitations. The resignation signals to the world Benedict’s awareness that John Paul permanently altered expectations for the ancient office. Popes are now globe-trotters and media stars, not the mysterious and remote figures of old. And in the age of the Internet and cable news, important policy moves (e.g. how to handle those unending and dispiriting priestly molestation scandals) can no longer to delayed for months — or years.

In short, a revolutionary act by a very traditional Catholic leader.

How long ago was it that he went live on Twitter?

That was 34 tweets ago, back in December. Maybe he decided to give up social media for Lent and, once he thought that over, he carried his concept to its logical conclusion. Thus, @Pontifex has been silent this week.

Read it all (including The Guy’s personal memory of interviewing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger).

However, the veteran Godbeat reporter did offer this piece of advice to journalists ramping up to cover what newsrooms assume is the race to fill St. Peter’s throne.

When John Paul died, countless supposed specialists — The Guy included — figured the then Cardinal Ratzinger would never be elected. He was too controversial due to efforts on discipline while heading the Vatican’s doctrine office, too close to his predecessor, a bit too old, a bit too German, and on and on.

Keep that in mind during coming days as papal pundits speculate on who’s in and who’s out in the pre-election maneuvering./blockquote>

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  • Thomas

    While abdication sounds correct, canon law appears to use the term resignation:

    If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.


    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      The Latin for Canon 332 §2 states, “Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat…” In other words, it’s technically a renunciation — he’s renouncing the office. The same word is used for a bishop’s “resignation” in Canons 401 and 411. It’s the same thing that happens if someone wants to withdraw a case pending before a diocesan or pontifical tribunal — the person renounces the case.

    • FrH

      I’m not sure where this “he didn’t resign but abdicate” thought came from, though I’ve seen it in several places. It does not appear to be well founded. The canon covering a papal resignation is 332 §2, and here it is in Latin: “Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur.” The Latin words being translate as “resign” all come from “renuntiare,” which is the same word used in canons 187-189, which are discussing resignations as commonly understood.

  • Julia

    I think that started when people realized that there was no superior to accept a resignation.
    After all, a bishop presents his resignation at age 75, but it is the Pope’s pleasure when to accept that resignation.
    I don’t think there is a procedure in US law about a President resigning because he/she doesn’t have a superior either, although Nixon did it.

  • Julia

    There’s a US procedure for fremoving a President, but only for cause as far as I know; nothing for ill health or inability to perform his office. No such procedure exists for the Pope whether for cause or otherwise that I know of.

  • Like the other commenters, I’m inclined to think that they are entirely OK on this one. ‘Abdication’ is also entirely fine, since it seems to have a venerable history in this context, as does ‘renunciation’; but ‘resignation’ is a pretty reasonable translation of the word actually used in Church documents.

    However, while I don’t think it’s a good idea to put the matter in terms of what’s the ‘real’ word for it, I also think it’s worth discussing what’s involved in ‘renuntiatio’, and whether there are things it suggests (or has traditionally suggested) that aren’t suggested by this or that translation — and this is obviously the sort of thing it’s reasonable for a reporter to look into, and that a good reporter on these issues certainly will.

  • FW Ken

    Why is it that Benedict seeing a different path is somehow critical of the path taken by JP II? Does difference imply criticism?

    • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

      The media just loves to create conflict where there are merely different paths followed based on different circumstances and different witness given. Pope John Paul II gave us an example of how to carry a cross of illness with faith and courage. Benedict XVI has given us a true lesson on humility that one wishes some in politics and the media would follow.

  • Jerry

    Since we’re into hair splitting semantics here. Per a google search define: resignation

    An act of retiring or giving up a position.
    A document conveying someone’s intention of retiring.

    Synonyms demission – renunciation – abdication

  • Resign, retire, or renounce are all fine interpretations of the Code of Canon Law and other documents regarding the pope’s departure. “Abdication” is not. When popes were also, and primarily, monarchs of the papal states, this term was fitting. But now, though sovereign of the Vatican City-State, the pope is first, foremost, and fundamentally the bishop of Rome. And bishops resign, even if there is no one to accept the resignation.

  • I’m curious about the statement from the canon that “it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” Could the cardinals have refused to accept the Pope’s resignation?

  • That’s not the whole canon: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” So *if* a pope resigns, he must do so of his own free will. And *if* he resigns, it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone. This abdication vs. resignation is a phony dispute. Canon law says a pope can resign. That’s what Benedict did.

  • Julia

    “And bishops resign, even if there is no one to accept the resignation.”
    No, the Pope can refuse to accept a resignation. It is actually an offer of resignation, which can be rejected or put on hold. Benedict tried to resign a number of times from his office at his former job, but John Paul II would not accept it. All bishops must submit a letter of resignation at age 75, but they are often not accepted until a later date.

  • I would like to hear from a traditional canon lawyer on the subject. My late father, who was a distinguished queen’s counsel in Canada, Eldon M Woolliams (Chairman of the House Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs), would have enjoyed a good discussion of this issue with me. I believe the old canon law might shed light on the question and whether it differs and to what extent with the new canon law. While His Holiness may be technically correct vis-a-vis the new canon law, it still flies in the face of centuries of tradition. To use common law as an analogy as opposed to napoleonic code, I would argue that Mattingly and Weigel are correct and that the new canon law as written by its nature is “ultra vires” (unconstitutional). That is to say, His Holiness has “abdicated” de facto if not de jure. And to abdicate the office of Supreme Pontiff and Successor of St Peter, which are not only second millenium terms, well – it just isn’t “cricket.” It was done, it looks like, under duress (reports of a fight with Cardinal Sodano that very day), but if the outer environment were different than what it was, he would not have made such a decision at that time. Was there any surpassing justification from a medical standpoint? There is no evidence of such. Hence the legality of the decision is itself legitimate to question. And I am not a “Rad Trad.” I sincerely question those cardinals who have gone along with this “modernist” decision and their saying even that they can “speed up the process.” Beware the Ides of March!

  • Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, IL (disclosure: I work for the diocese), is a noted canon lawyer and believes “resign” is the proper word: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Blog/1984/resign_renounce_or_abdicate_bishop_paprocki_weighs_in.aspx#.USZ1Sh3Whro.

  • Seems to me that whether or not “resign” is the most accurate translation of the rules of the Church in this matter, in this context, the word abdication, and the full sense of what the word both means and culturally connotes, seems a fitting description of what is actually happening here.

    Interesting how he’s not just the first pope in 600 years to resign, he’s also the first pope in 600 years who will be around for selection of his successor.

    How interesting.

    A Vatican Spring, by Hans Küng