We have already published a review of Antonio Socci’s new book, The Secret of Benedict XVI: Why He Is Still Pope, written by our Italian translator, Giuseppe Pellegrino.
Pellegrino has returned, in a fashion, offering an English translation of Professor Roberto de Mattei’s review of the book, published in the January 2019 edition of Catholic Family News.
In our introduction to Pellegrino’s review, we noted that “some of his [Socci’s] operating assumptions merit critique.” De Mattei, who describes Socci as “a brilliant journalist” whom he esteems “for his authentic Catholic faith and for the independence of his thought” and whose “severe judgment on Pope Francis” he shares, offers that critique, demonstrating why he cannot agree with a number of Socci’s conclusions.
“Socci develops the thesis,” writes De Mattei:
… which he has already proposed in Non è Francesco, namely, that the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is doubtful and perhaps invalid, and that Benedict XVI may still be Pope, because he may have not entirely renounced the Petrine ministry. His renunciation was only “relative” – writes Socci – and Benedict intended “to remain the pope, although purely in an enigmatic way and in an unofficial form, which has not been explained (at least not until a certain future date).”
But there is a fundamental problem with this idea, and Socci does not, in De Mattei’s view, make the case:
Regarding the doubts about the election of Cardinal Bergoglio, the many clues which Socci examines do not provide sufficient proof to sustain his thesis. Apart from the canonical subtleties, there was not one cardinal who participated in the Conclave of 2013 who raised any doubt about the validity of the election. The entire Church accepted and recognized Pope Francis as the legitimate Pope, and according to canon law, the peaceful “universalis Ecclesiae adhaesio [adhesion of the universal Church]” is both a sign and an infallible effect of a valid election of a legitimate Pope. Professor Geraldina Boni, in a profound study entitled “Sopra una rinuncia. La decisione di papa Benedetto XVI e il diritto [Beyond a Resignation. The Decision of Pope Benedict XVI and The Law] (Bologna 2015), points out that canonical regulations governing the conclave do not consider an election invalid which is the fruit of bargains, agreements, promises, or other commitments of whatever sort, such as the possible planning of the election of Cardinal Bergoglio.
What Professor Boni writes coincides with what Robert Siscoe and John Salza observe, on the basis of the most authoritative theologians and canonists: “…it is the common doctrine of the Church that the peaceful and universal acceptance of a Pope provides infallible certitude of his legitimacy.”
On the right of the Pope to resign, there are no serious doubts. The new Code of Canon Law addresses the possible resignation of the Pope in can. 332 § 2 with these words: “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.” The resignation of Benedict XVI was free and ritually manifested. If Benedict XVI was under pressure he would have had to say so, or at least let it be understood. In his Last Conversations with Peter Seewald, he instead declared the contrary, restating that his decision was entirely free, immune from all coercion.
Where Socci wants to give Benedict the benefit of the doubt, saying “we cannot imagine that he [Benedict] wanted to ‘fall into a grave fault,'” De Mattei objects to the “a priori” exclusion of this possibility. According to De Mattei’s view, while “legitimate from a theological and canonical point of view,” the abdication of Pope Benedict “appears however to be in absolute discontinuity with the tradition and praxis of the Church, and therefore morally reprehensible” (emphasis added). De Mattei argues that Benedict had the right and the power to do what he did but lacked a just cause for doing it. In his view, the reason given by Benedict for his resignation “appears to be totally disproportionate to the gravity of the act.”
This is where De Mattei, a globally renowned Church historian and researcher, begins an examination of the broader historical context of the papacy, and argues that popes were:
… always elected in old age and often in terrible physical condition, without any medicine at the time being able to help them, in contrast to what it is able to do today. Yet they never resigned or failed to exercise their proper mission. Physical health has never been a criterion for governing the Church.
And so, De Mattei argues of Benedict’s abdication:
In the eyes of the world, it caused a desacralization of the Petrine ministry, which has come to be considered like an agency whose president can resign for reasons of age or physical weakness.
By way of contrary example, De Mattei quotes Pope St. Pius V in a letter he wrote to “the old archbishop of Goa, in India, weak and afflicted by many trials.” The archbishop had asked the pope to free him of his duties. Instead, the sainted pope replied:
We understand fraternally what you feel, We are old just like you, fatigued by many labors, in the midst of many dangers; but recall that tribulation is the normal path which leads to Heaven and that we ought not to abandon the post assigned to us by Providence. Can you perhaps believe that We too, in the midst of so many concerns so full of responsibility, do not at times feel tired of living? And that We do not desire to return to Our former state of a simple religious? Nevertheless, We are determined not to shake off our yoke but to bear it courageously until God shall call us to Himself. Renounce, therefore, all hope of being able to retire to a quieter life…
Imagine if Benedict had had such fortitude. Five years later, how would things have played out?
De Mattei goes on to address other arguments: the idea that Benedict intended to resign only the active exercise of the papal ministry; why Ratzinger has remained in the “enclosure of Peter” and calls himself “Pope Emeritus”; the “bizarre thesis” of Italian canonist Stefano Violi that Benedict resigned the office of the papacy but not the munus; the comments on papal bifurcation by Archbishop Georg Gänswein; and more.
Perhaps most significantly, De Mattei tackles the idea of Benedict as a “silent figure” who sits in the Vatican with mystical purpose, averting “schisms and divisions,” restraining “the advance of the Revolution” and ensuring peace. De Mattei writes:
The mysticism which Socci attributes to Benedict XVI seems to be merely his own literary fantasy, while in his book he ignores the great theological debate between Modernism and anti-Modernism, just as he ignores the Second Vatican Council and its dramatic consequences. The Papacy has been despoiled of its institutional dimension and instead “personalized”. For Socci, John Paul II and Benedict XVI incarnate the “good”, while Francis is the expression of “evil”. In reality, the rapport between Francis and his predecessors is much closer than Socci imagines, if for no other reason than it was the improvident resignation of Benedict XVI which opened the way for Cardinal Bergoglio.
Despite his esteem for Socci, De Mattei is forced to conclude that the idea that Benedict resigned as part of a mission is false; it is for him, instead, “the symbol of the surrender of the Church to the world.”
There is much substance in the piece that I could only touch on here, so I encourage you to visit Catholic Family News to read the whole thing.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.