For better or worse, there are palpable effects to any grave life decision. Ideas, words, omissions, and actions can have fateful consequences. Such a grave decision is being made by many in the Catholic Church. The choice is to believe that Benedict, a man who undeniably still lives in the Vatican, clad in ominous white, remains as Pope Benedict XVI.
The choice may be founded on a variety of factors — namely, the distinction that renouncing a “ministry” versus “office” is insufficient for resignation, that Benedict secretly misleads his flock with a counterfeit resignation, or that he was pressured out of the papacy in such a way as to invalidate his resignation — though one cannot absolutely prove this assertion yet.
The purpose of writing this article is not to delve into the actual arguments for Benedict’s so-called non-resignation. Such a task has been tried, found tedious, and left to those who still wish to quibble about it. The Church has suffered enough. Rather, the purpose here is to examine the logical effects of adhering to the hypothesis that Benedict is still the pope.
I will admit, it is enticing to believe that Benedict is still the pope. While there is truth to the paradox that Pope Francis has exposed the corruption in the Church, how could a Catholic not still wish for the days of the gentle Benedict? If we could only click our ruby-red Benedict slippers, repeat that there’s no place like Rome, and have Benedict as pope, the reprieve would be staggering. There would be no footnotes from Amoris Laetitia, praises of Laudato Si’ by Jeffrey Sachs, or Amazonian-liturgical drivel from Querida Amazonia, nor would we be shaking our fists at the assertion that God wills a plurality of religions. The Church in China would not be abandoned to the caprices of the communist regime, and, perhaps most pleasing of all, Austen Ivereigh would bear a somber look of terror mixed with panic. Enticing, indeed. Real problems are solved if Benedict is still the pope.
Problems are raised, too, invoking the reality of being stuck between a rock and hard place. There are fateful effects to be considered if Benedict is still pope.
Some effects are less grave, if you can call 99.9% of the Catholic Church following an anti-pope less grave. I speak namely of the disunity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If Benedict is still the pope, 99.9% of Masses invoke an anti-pope at the Te igitur. The Sacrifice of Unity would be offered to our own condemnation. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, quoting Optatus of Milevis, warns that “he who erects another in opposition to this single chair [of Peter] is a schismatic and prevaricator” (Article IX). One cannot even begin to fathom 99.9% of the Catholic Church invoking an anti-pope at Mass.
Further to this point, is the real bishop of the diocese named at Mass? If Benedict is still the pope, Francis’s appointments of bishops are null. Is Cardinal Donald Wuerl still the archbishop of Washington? I’ll wager he would like that. Is Cardinal (presumably non-Cardinal) Blase Cupich still the lowly bishop of Spokane, with the Archdiocese of Chicago being vacant? Many dioceses would have a pseudo-shepherd as their authority.
And how many new bishops since 2013 have been be ordained without the express approval of the pope? If Benedict is still the pope, then we have had hundreds of illicit episcopal ordinations. One such bishop is media-friendly Bishop Robert Barron — though I doubt that a schismatic status would dissuade the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress from spurning him. Nevertheless, the authority of bishops ordained and appointed during the reign of Pope Francis would be severely compromised.
Such considerations betray a Church in disarray — one that attacks the Church’s very structure and governance. But these notions can be remedied. Perhaps a future pope could declare that all past appointments and ordinations are retroactively legitimate. Even the excommunicated bishops ordained by Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 later had their excommunication lifted (2009), by none other than Pope Benedict XVI. A pope could do this.
A pope could do this, but which pope? We must consider not only what is happening if Benedict is still the pope, but also what will happen when he dies.
Here we must be realistic. When Benedict dies, the cardinals will not gather in Rome to elect a new pope. They will not tally votes, announce Habemus Papam, or declare obedience to a new man dressed in white. Rather, they will have a funeral for Benedict; possibly say a few empty words of praise for him; and then carry on with the Church, happily unfettered by Benedict’s presence. In other words, when Benedict dies, the Church will carry on as it did before, with Francis as pope. For those believing that Benedict remained pope, the seat will be vacant.
More importantly, what will happen when Francis dies? The same cardinals will gather in Rome to elect a new pope, because this is what they have always done. There will be 124 cardinals voting, with 66 of them appointed by Francis. The votes from pre-2013 cardinals and the “invalid” Francis cardinals will be added together and shown as indistinguishable. From this, Habemus Papam will be declared; a new pope will take a new name; and he will carry on with the Church — whatever graceful, or mischievous, path that may be.
What will be left of the Benedict-as-pope theory? It will slowly fade away. Pre-Francis cardinals will die. New cardinals will be raised. Perhaps futile attempts will be made to elect a new pope along the lines of past sedevacantists. I think of how, in 1998, a group of lay Catholics “elected” Lucian Pulvermacher to be the supreme pontiff of the Church. Pulvermacher pontificated as Pius XIII from God’s country in Montana. There’s no place like Rome, indeed.
Where are we going with this?
If we’re holding that Benedict XVI is still the true pope of the Catholic Church, something needs to happen, and soon. Perhaps it would involve Benedict breaking his silence and, in contradicting past words, explaining that he was forced from office (or should I say ministry?) against his will. Perhaps it would involve some explosive new document or revelation that shakes the Church to the core, and induces a new Francis-free conclave. Perhaps. But whatever “it” is, it must deeply move the universal Church, and it must happen soon.
As for Benedict, he seems in no hurry to drop a bombshell on the Church. In a February 7, 2018, letter he explained:
I can only say that with the slow decline of my physical forces, interiorly, I am on a pilgrimage towards Home. It is a great grace for me to be surrounded in this last, sometimes a little tiring, piece of road, by such love and goodness that I could not have imagined. … Best regards.
In other words, best regards, and do not hold your breath waiting for him to “save” the situation. The reality is this: if you believe that Benedict remains the pope, he may very well be the last pope. “And the gates of hell shall not prevail”?
To conclude, yes, Pope Francis is inciting great suffering and confusion. A rational mind cannot deny this. Yet someday he will pass from this world. Perhaps at a later time a future pope will condemn any and all errors from our time. God willing. But for this, we will actually need a pope — to which we must ask: is it better to have a future pope condemn a past pope, or to have no pope at all? When faced with a grave decision, consider the consequences.
And when caught between a rock and a hard place, always choose the Rock.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of five. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.