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Rise of the Benevacantists: Who Is Pope?

The papacy of Pope Francis has set many new bars for the Church. Many of us, who are faithful Catholics, have been shocked and dismayed as he appointed heterodox clergy and prelates; promulgated highly ambiguous documents that appear to challenge formal teaching; and terrified us with unguarded language of the latest airplane presser like a lightning bolt from the hand of Zeus, poised to strike at any time. “Who am I to judge” and the reluctance to handle the problems stemming from homosexuality in the clergy have caused many faithful even more dismay.

It is little wonder that some people wish it would all go away. In recent years, some people have decided they will do just that. How? By putting it in a hat and pulling out a rabbit named Benedict. These individuals, believing that Pope Benedict did not properly abdicate the papal throne (for one reason or another, all of them wrong, as we shall see), argue that he and not Pope Francis is the true pope. Therefore, all the insanity goes away, problem solved, huzzah! Some have coined a term for them: “Benevacantists.” I will use this term as an easy reference for these individuals who hold for a certain fact that Benedict is the pope, while Francis is not.

The great problem with the Benevacantists is that they have invented the principles and then imposed them upon the Church as if binding on even the pope himself. They then declare that Pope Francis is not the pope and that Benedict is. They describe his resignation as the “attempted abdication” or “attempted resignation” in a definitive sense, usually on the basis of various theories of events or on some perceived turn of the Latin of the resignation, with no hard facts. What is particularly galling is that, although this is an area that the angels fear to tread, you have people with no fundamental competence in Latin or theology proceeding to tell us what the Latin of the resignation really means, or what these nonexistent laws of resignations are.

Apart from the personalities of some of those involved in perpetuating this thesis, which one priest has rightly called insanity, we can boil down the propositions to the following, which are held separately or together, depending upon whom you talk to:

– The Latin switches terminology to prove that Benedict resigned only one part of the papacy and not another, making the whole thing invalid.

– The Latin of Benedict’s resignation is grammatically incorrect.

– Pope Benedict was under grave duress, therefore his resignation was not free.

– The “St. Gallen Mafia,” as revealed by Cardinal Danneels, canvassed for votes and arranged things to elect then-cardinal Bergoglio, so the whole election of Francis is invalid.

What does the resignation really say?

The first place on which to focus is the question of the resignation. I have never read any translation of it, only the original Latin. As always, care really must be taken regarding the propriety of language and syntax when approaching ecclesiastical documents, and even more so when one is attempting to argue from a document a matter of grave consequence to the whole Church.

One of the most notable proponents of Benevacantism attempted, in one blog post, to show that the use of the subjunctive for vacare – namely, vacet – by Pope Benedict to indicate that the See of Peter will be made vacant was a potential subjunctive that meant “may become vacant” but not that it will – so he couldn’t have resigned! But this is utterly erroneous, because the clause in which it appears, coming at the end of the second paragraph, reads (my emphasis), “declaro me … renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20, sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet”. The clause employed here is what is called in grammar a result clause. This means that in English, it sounds indicative, indicating the result of the action, and signaled by the use of ita (so) and the particle ut. Thus, literally, it translates to “I declare that I renounce … what was entrusted to me by the Cardinals so much so that from the 28th of February 2013, at 8:00 P.M., the see of Rome, the see of St. Peter will be vacant.”

When this error in the vacet argument was pointed out to the above commentator, she attempted to cover herself by saying a Latin professor somewhere told her that most students make that mistake. That is just the point: students make these errors, and we may well expect them to. In this case, the notion that the Latin subjunctive is always potential in meaning is one of those myths that afflicts the inexperienced. It is rather the opposite: the subjunctive is most often employed in a dependent clause connected to an indicative verb that has an indicative feeling or sense, not a potential one [1]. That concept should be the backbone of understanding for anyone competent in Latin. The fact that the commentator in question made such a mistake demonstrates that she does not have the fundamental competence in Latin to be making arguments from the text, let alone the prudence to approach the question. If you are going to engage in a potentially (sic) schismatic act, you want to be darn sure you have your is dotted and your ts crossed, and not vice versa.

Now let us take on the main argument: that Benedict, willing or unwilling, tried to split the papacy by renouncing only one part of the potestas, or the papal power, so that Francis could take it, which is impossible; therefore, the resignation was not valid, and Benedict is still pope. Essentially, he should have used the word munus (office), but instead, he used the word ministerium (ministry), so he couldn’t really renounce the papacy.

Let’s look at the Latin, part of which we just cited, a little more closely. The Benevacantists argue that after twice using the word munus (munus Petrinum and hoc munus in the first and second paragraph, respectively), he then uses ministerium, therefore he must be implying that he is renouncing something other than the Petrine office. After laying out that he no longer has the strength to carry out the obligations of the papacy, he declares (my emphasis):

Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commisso renuntiare, etc.

The argument about a difference between munus and ministerium does not hold water for several reasons. The first is that they are more or less synonymous. Munus can mean a gift, although even there it is not disconnected from the notion that it is a gift that carries responsibility. In ecclesiastical parlance, it typically means an office or duty. Thus, the episcopate, and the papacy, is considered a munus, properly speaking. In this sense, it is roughly synonymous with officium, which is the Roman word for duty. Ministerium can mean a ministry or service, but it also means office or duty, in the sense of the essence of what the munus entails. In fact, Forcellini uses the word munus to describe ministerium in the Lexicon Totius Latinitatis: “MINISTERIUM, -ii, n. 2 (<minister), opera et munus ministri et famuli” (my emphasis) [2]. Cicero shows that munus can mean the very work that is done in an office, just as ministerium does [3]. Stelton’s dictionary of ecclesiastical Latin lists for ministerium: “ministry, service, office, duty” [4]. St. Thomas refers to the use of ministerium to refer to the power and office of the papacy: “[s]ome power was also conferred to ministers of the Church, who are dispensers of the Sacraments, to remove the obstacle, not of itself, but by the divine power and the power of the passion of Christ, and this power is metaphorically called the key of the Church (clavis ecclesiae), which is the key of service (clavis ministerii)” [5].

The conclusion we can draw is that munus and ministerium were meant by Pope Benedict to mean the same thing. It is not unusual in vernacular in modern parlance to use office and ministry as one and the same word. There may be no particular reason why Benedict uses the word ministerium in place of munus even after using the former; writers frequently use synonyms to break up the overuse of specific words. Or it could simply be that the pope is far better read in Latin than the Benevacantists. The import of what St. Thomas is saying above is that the key of the Church, which is also called the key of ministry, or service, is the authority to discern and the power to judge [6]. On what planet, we ask, if this is what the Pope Emeritus renounced, can that not be understood as the office and power of the papacy?

Furthermore, given the fact that the terms may be used synonymously in the vernacular as well as Latin, and given Pope Benedict’s subsequent actions, the burden is on the Benevacantist to read the pope’s thoughts for us and show us what was in his mind. Being an impossible burden, we must reject it in favor of the obvious: Benedict meant to resign the entirety of the papacy, and his vacating the office and allowing another conclave to take place is the proper interpretation of his intentions.

But what if the Benevacantist Latin arguments had some real validity? Even then, we are faced with the fact that the Church does not demand a prescribed formula for the pope to resign, nor is there a specific model to follow. In Canon Law, it says instead:

“If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone” [7]. The emphasis here is on rite manifestetur, or duly manifested. The word rite is an adverb meaning in a due manner, correctly, or appropriately. Here it is modifying manifestare, which is as it is in English. This means the pope needs only to properly manifest – that is, make it clear in the external forum – that he is resigning. Furthermore, he carried it out. What clearer manifestation of his will could there be? So even if the pope made a grammatical error in his resignation document (as some maintain), or if he used an imprecise word, his actions proved what he intended.

External Forum

This leads us to the next consideration. The papacy is a public office. Its reception is public, and a resignation of that office is publicly manifested. That means the presumption is on the validity of the resignation until it is proven otherwise in the external forum. That is, the resignation must be shown to be false in ecclesiastical courts – not on a blog, not on Facebook, and not in the formal declaration of some layman or even a cleric.

Propter metum

Now let us consider the argument of fear or duress that is often alleged. Proponents of this argument may quote Canon 188: “A resignation submitted out of grave fear, which has been unjustly inflicted, or because of fraud, substantial error or simony is invalid by the law itself” [8]. The difficulty is that in all acts done out of fear, there is in fact a consent to the act that is, in principle, actual consent.

This is attested to also in Canon Law: “An act placed because of grave fear, which has been unjustly inflicted, or because of fraud is valid unless the law makes some other provision; but such an act can be rescinded by the decision of a judge, either at the instance of an injured party, or at that party’s successor’s in law, or ex officio” [9]. The import of this is that if the pope were pressured by some nebulous fear, arising from some nebulous threat, as certain blogs have opined, it would be necessary for this to be shown in a canonical court, by that party or someone succeeding to his claims, and at that point, when this fear is demonstrated in the external forum, then, and only then, could we have such a confirmation.

The result of this is that unless the Benevacantists want to go back to Gallicanism or Conciliarism, there is only one person who could possibly put into effect a canonical trial of this matter, and that is Pope Francis.

To summarize the questions viz. Pope Benedict’s completed and confirmed abdication, we can draw this sort of analogy. The consequence of individual laity “definitively declaring” Benedict’s resignation to be invalid, on their own authority, is not at all different from a man who discovers that his marriage is invalid due to some impediment. Even if he were one hundred percent correct and this impediment were as plain as the summer sun, he cannot just run off and marry some other woman unless the Church has granted him a declaration of nullity, which is a judgment in the external forum. In other words, because the sacrament of matrimony is a public act, not unlike taking the office of the papacy or renouncing it, any defects affecting validity must be publicly adjudicated by the Church through the annulment process so that a definitive judgment will be issued and those concerned will have moral certitude on the matter.

To make the point even more obvious, Benedict himself has affirmed repeatedly that he did in fact resign, and he even defended his abdication to Cardinal Brandmüller, who had questioned its prudence. But then, some will say, what about Monsignor Gänswein, the pope’s personal secretary, who said, “We have two popes”? This is often used by the Benevacantists as a smoking gun. Again, whatever a third party said, this would have to be determined in the external forum in an ecclesiastical court. But even more, Mgsr. Ganswein has also clarified exactly what he meant, and it does not fit the imaginings of the Benevacantists.

CRUX: There are a number of cardinals, Paul Badde said during the interview, that are “upset when hearing that the Church currently has two living successors to Peter.” Recently you spoke about an expanded petrine office, that Pope Benedict is said to have introduced. Could you explain that a bit further?

GÄNSWEIN: I saw from among the reactions that I was imputed to have said a number of things that I did not say. Of course, Pope Francis is the legitimate and legitimately elected pope. Any talk of two popes, one legitimate, one illegitimate, is therefore incorrect.

What he did in fact say, Gänswein added, was that Benedict continues to be present in prayer and sacrifice, which bears spiritual fruit.

“When applying common sense, faith and a little theology, that should be clear,” he said.

But what about the St. Gallen mafia? Cardinal Godfried Danneels, of Belgium, confessed in a book that he and other cardinals were actively canvassing for then-cardinal Bergoglio to be elected pope. Therefore, the Benevacantists say, all the participants were excommunicated, and Bergoglio can’t be pope. Be that as it may, again, following the canonical principles we noted above, an investigation would have to be done to determine the truth or falsity of the matter, as, naturally, such proceedings are secret.

I don’t have any doubts that Cardinal Danneels should be excommunicated for a multiplicity of reasons. But really, a cardinal writing a book is not a smoking gun; it is rather something that demands investigation. And the person to do the investigating is Pope Francis or a subsequent pope.

In conclusion, we have seen that there is no prescribed form for a pope to resign from the papacy apart from him making his will known and following it up with action. If there is some pressure, threat, or duress caused by whatever theory one wishes to posit, according to canonical principles, this act remains valid until it is shown otherwise in an ecclesiastical court. The presumption of validity rests upon the current officeholder until proven otherwise, just as in a marriage, presumption of validity rests upon the bond until proven otherwise.

To overthrow due process, the gift of the Church to the legal systems of the world, and reduce judgment of who the pope is to bloggers and Facebook posts opining from private judgment is to not only attack the visibility of the Church, but to invite schism at levels unseen since the Middle Ages. Five centuries of Protestantism have dulled our senses to the evil of schism, but it is something to be feared rather than welcomed.

The reality is, there are some who simply are not prepared to suffer under Pope Francis. While this writer is not fond of the current pontiff, he has no hesitation in affirming absolutely that he is pope, even though the same writer does not view his papacy as favorable to the Church, to put it mildly. But given the state of so many Catholics in their moral and spiritual lives, and the unhealthy attention accorded to every papal act, it seems that he is the pope we deserve. Some think everything would be better if we just had Benedict back, but it should not be forgotten that if the testimony of a recent papal critic is true, then Pope Benedict merely placed the infamous Cardinal McCarrick under private sanctions to penance and prayer. And if that story is not true, we know one that certainly is: the placing Marcial Maciel Degollado, the infamous womanizer who sodomized his own son and founded the Legionaries of Christ, under seclusion, penance, and prayer. In other words, Pope Benedict was part of the ecclesiastical corruption that led us to where we are in the current scandals. There is a wide gulf between a truly reforming pope and Pope Benedict, although posterity will no doubt be indebted to him for Summorum Pontificum.

Finally, if it is the case that Benedict is still pope and Francis is not, then this will be adjudicated by the Church, under the aegis of the current pontificate or a subsequent one. To formally declare, not to merely opine, feel, or secretly wonder, but to definitively declare Benedict’s resignation invalid and Francis to not be the valid occupant, is nothing short of schismatic and to be avoided by all true Catholics.

[1] To clarify for those who do not know Latin well, the subjunctive (conjunctivum) is a mood (modus) of the verb that is employed to join (hence its Latin name) certain types of dependent clauses with indicative-mood independent clauses. This is its main and proper function, while much less of the time, it is used to indicate hypothetical or potential outcomes.

[2] “MINISTERIUM, etc., the work and office of a minister and servant.” Op. cit., vol. 3, pg. 249.

[3] “Nulla ejus ingenii monumenta mandata litteris, nullum opus otii nullum solitudinis munus exstat.” de Officis, 1, 4.

[4] Op. cit., pg. 162.

[5] [E]tiam ministris ecclesiae, qui sunt dispensatores sacramentorum, potestas aliqua ad praedictum obstaculum removendum est collata, non propria, sed virtute divina et passionis Christi, et haec potestas metaphorice clavis ecclesiae dicitur, quae est clavis ministerii. 4 Sent. 18, 1. 1. 1c.

[6] Cf. 4 Sent. 19. 1. 1. 2c, Summa Contra Gentiles, 4, 72.

[7] Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur. Canon 332 §2.

[8] Renuntiatio ex metu gravi, iniuste incusso, dolo vel errore substantiali aut simoniace facta ipso iure irrita est.

[9] Canon 125, §2.

Image courtesy of manhhai via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

5 thoughts on “Rise of the Benevacantists: Who Is Pope?”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough and clear explanation for why this thinking is wrong. I’ve recently been hearing more and more of this kind of talk, and I don’t want to be led astray or feel doubtful.


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