An ailing Benedict XVI made a short trip home to Germany to visit his even more infirm brother. In more sane times, this would have caused normal human reactions from Catholics, such as wishing the brothers well and perhaps offering a prayer for their well-being. Given that sanity is not 2020’s speciality, many of the reactions to Benedict’s return home were dizzying. “What does it mean?” “Is he being exiled?” “Fleeing?” “Wasn’t there a private revelation about a pope leaving Rome?” “Will he die there?” “What will this mean for the papacy?!”
As it stands, Benedict’s Germany excursion means nothing for the papacy. He resigned, effective February 28, 2013. But to say as much is to cordially invite a growing contingent of Catholics to a public quarrel. The last time I stated this, I was called, among other things, a Freemason. Again, sanity is not 2020’s speciality.
Why did Benedict’s visit to Germany immediately produce sensationalist speculation? If nothing else, it demonstrates just how on edge the Francis papacy has made many Catholics become. Further, it reveals how precarious it is to independently conjecture on who holds the papacy. It seems that the rock of authority is necessary to ground our lives in reality.
Every other religion that lacks this authority suffers appositely. A dozen years ago, I somehow found myself — we’ll say predestined — at a Calvinist university to complete a degree. Not finding the teachings on TULIP irresistibly graceful, I occupied my time arguing with the professors. I would hear the usual: “Natural law is bogus.” “The Eucharist is merely a spiritual sign.” “Scripture is our only authority.” After some initial sparring, it inevitably concluded with me asking, “how do you know that’s true?” One poor professor spent an entire class attempting to prove his position on a topic using an analogy of an onion. It certainly produced tears — of boredom. After waiting patiently for nearly 80 minutes of talk on onion layers and theology, my inevitable reply was, “the Protestant church down the street believes differently. How do you know what you say is true? By what authority?” “Well, it’s not the Magisterium!” he shouted back, dutifully living up to the name of Protestant.
I hold nothing against those professors. We are all are susceptible to error if left on our own. Recall that not even the greatest mind of all, St. Thomas Aquinas, was correct 100% of the time. That Christ left us a Magisterium, and a pope as the visible head of the Church, is indispensable to following the Truth — “a visible Church requires a visible head” [i].
What happens when we, of our own accord, challenge the validity of a pope? We are left with this:
Francis is the pope — unless you think he is an open and manifest heretic, in which case he isn’t the pope, though an authoritative pronouncement is needed to verify this. So then there possibly is no pope right now. Or maybe Benedict remains as pope? His resignation could have been invalidated by external coercion, though he denies this, and we cannot definitively prove it. And then there’s the idea that Benedict’s resignation contained a clear technical violation of Latin, at least clear enough for a handful of Latinists to acknowledge. Maybe Benedict actually wanted to split the papacy? But only through some secret manner that would make the ancient Gnostics gleam with pride. Perhaps, then, both Francis and Benedict are the pope? Somehow? Yet would this not be heresy? Upon these rocks I will build My Church? It would seem — in which case Benedict would lose the papacy. But then we return to needing a proper universal authority to declare this. So we must definitively conclude that Francis is pope, or maybe Benedict, or both, or none at all. And I haven’t even brought up private revelation, wrought with echoes of two popes, an antipope; eclipses of the Church; a mirror image of a pope; a prisoner in the Vatican; and, as mentioned earlier, a pope leaving Rome.
Jesus said, “Every city or house divided against itself shall not stand” (Mt. 12:25). The Church falls like a house of cards when we engage in such musings.
Forgive me for speaking so loosely on an issue of such gravitas. Clearly, it is complex. In fact, it is too complex, and far beyond my limited understanding. I think back to recent musings by Father John Zuhlsdorf (Fr. Z) on the topic of splitting a papacy. Fr. Z, who is undeniably an intelligent man, writes:
And it seems that another man could then function as Bishop of Rome while another man still retained that other character. That’s a point to resolve. Did Benedict think that the primacy, the papacy, being Successor Peter qua Vicar of Christ root in him ontologically, such that he thought he could divorce the active ministerium given by the College without giving up the petrinum munus given by Christ? I’m pondering all of this and it is rather heavy.
Rather heavy, the good priest warns. To say nothing of analyzing Canon 332, Liberius, Celestine, Bellarmine, Canon 1013, Vatican I, or the parsing of Romanus Pontifex. Heavy is, in fact, too light of a term. It is unimaginably onerous.
Can we not, at the very least, admit that the majority of lay Catholics do not have the intellectual capacity to properly discern these affairs — nor, for that matter, most priests and bishops? I certainly do not. As for the men who should actually weigh in on these matters, the cardinals, they are silent. Perhaps silence is providential, given their propensity for scandals.
Yet if we regular faithful Catholics are clearly incapable of making a definitive pronouncement on who the pope is, and the cardinals of the Church are silent, there remains only one solution: persevere through the papacy that the Church has placed before us. “In your patience you shall possess your souls” (Lk. 21:19). God willing, at a future time, the teachings and papacy of Francis will be critiqued. I look forward to such a day — the integrity of Christ’s Church will demands as much. But by what authority can we declare otherwise?
And so we return to Benedict’s recent flight to his homeland and subsequent return. It turns out that speculation on the end of the world has been greatly exaggerated. What we can say is simple: an ailing Benedict XVI made a short trip home to Germany to visit his even more infirm brother. What a dull, non-salacious, and completely ordinary and human thing to say. Thank the good Lord. That Christ left us with the authority of the Church for grounding is immensely freeing.
It is anything but rather heavy.
[i] Catechism of the Council of Trent. Published by Command of Pope Pius the Fifth, John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan (trans.). (India: Baronius Press, 2018), 97; Unity in Government.
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.