It has become a subject of heated debate: did Pope Benedict XVI validly resign from the papacy? An article we published late last year on the topic of so-called “Benevacantism” had over 900 comments. Across the Catholic sectors of social media, one sees this question discussed, often heatedly, on a regular basis.
Today, three top prelates offer their opinion about the matter in an extensive piece at LifeSiteNews. The first and most significant of them is prefect of the papal household and personal secretary to Pope Benedict, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who says in a new interview that “[t]here is only one legitimately elected and incumbent Pope, and that is Francis.”
Of course, it was Gänswein who arguably did the most to create the confusion about Benedict’s resignation when he said the following in a talk in 2016:
From the election of his successor, Pope Francis — on 13 March 2013 — there are not then two Popes, but de facto an enlarged ministry with an active and a contemplative member. For this reason, Benedict has not renounced either his name or his white cassock. For this reason, the correct title with which we must refer to him is still “Holiness.” Furthermore, he has not retired to an isolated monastery, but [has retired] within the Vatican, as if he had simply stepped aside to make space for his Successor, and for a new stage in the history of the Papacy, which he, with that step, has enriched with the centrality of payer and of compassion placed in the Vatican Gardens.
A week later, the German Catholic journalist Paul Badde conducted an interview with Gänswein. Asked about his comments on an “enlarged ministry” of the papacy, he responded:
It is clear — to say it clearly, because I have seen in some of the reactions how people insinuated things that I never said. Of course: Pope Francis is the lawfully elected and lawful pope. That is to say, there are not two popes — the one lawful, the other unlawful, that is simply not correct. And I simply said — that is also what Pope Benedict said — that he, after all, is still present with his prayers, with his sacrifices, in the “Recinto” of Saint Peter [within the walls and precincts of the Vatican], and that, through these prayers, through these sacrifices, there shall come forth spiritual fruit for his successors and for the Church. That is what I meant to say, and now we have had for three years two popes and I have the impression that the reality that I perceive is covered by what I have said.
… it is very clear, the Plena Potestas, the Plenitudo Potestatis [full power, incarnate authority] is in the hands of Pope Francis. He is the man who has right now the succession of Peter. And then there are no difficulties left, as I also have said it. These two are also not in a competitive relationship. That is where one has to make use of common sense, as well as the Faith and a little bit of theology. Then one does not have at all difficulties to understand properly [sic] what I have said. [emphasis added]
His attempts at clarification notwithstanding, Gänswein nevertheless admitted that he saw the papacy as having an active and contemplative role, which left a great many people confused about what such an idea might possibly mean.
In today’s comments, Gänswein protests that he has “already cleared up the ‘misunderstanding’ several times.” He goes on to complain that “It makes no sense at all, no, even more, it is counterproductive to insist on this ‘misunderstanding’ and to quote me again and again. This is absurd and leads to self-harm [Selbstzerfleischung]. I have clearly said that there is only one Pope, one legitimately elected and incumbent Pope, and that is Francis. Amen.”
This adamant denial of any belief in a “bifurcated papacy” repeats sentiments OnePeterFive learned through circles close to Gänswein months ago, after the archbishop was made aware of the intensifying debate over the matter in online Catholic media. At the time, the prefect of the papal household, apparently under advisement from some members of the Vatican’s communications apparatus, declined to make a public statement about his comments. It is impossible to say for certain if recent high-level staffing changes to that dicastery, which took place in January, led to his decision to go on the record now.
The LifeSite piece examines some of the arguments against the assertion that the papal abdication was valid — such as the dispute over a resignation of the ministry of the papacy but not the munus, or office.
A theologian who spoke to LifeSite on condition of anonymity argued that supporters of this opinion need to show that Pope Benedict understood the munus and the ministerium as referring to two different realities. “If you think that ministerium means only acts of teaching and governance, then it would indeed seem to be different from the munus, which normally designates an office, that is, a kind of state,” he said.
“But ‘ministerium’ doesn’t have to mean acts,” he explained. “The first meaning given to it in the Latin dictionary (Lewis and Short) is ‘office.’ I would say that its basic meaning is ‘an office by reason of which one must perform acts to help others.’”
The theologian noted further that ‘munus’ doesn’t only mean a state. “According to the Latin dictionary, it can also refer to the performance of a duty,” he said. “It was used in this sense by Cicero and there is no more authoritative writer of Latin prose than him.”
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who formerly led the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences and is most recently known as one of the four dubia cardinals, also weighed in. Brandmüller — who wrote a letter to Benedict about the nature of his resignation and received a rather snippy response from the former pontiff — does not beat around the bush. “The resignation was valid, and the election was valid,” he told LifeSiteNews. “Enough.”
He also offered the reminder that when dealing with juridical acts, “[y]ou always have to keep in mind that the law speaks of verifiable facts, not of thoughts.”
Some of the most common objections to the validity of Benedict’s abdication are drawn from readings of canon law. This approach is questionable, insofar as popes are not bound by canon law and have the power to abrogate it, but it makes it all the more interesting to hear the thoughts of Cardinal Raymond Burke, former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura — the Church’s supreme canonical court v and considered by many to be among the world’s foremost experts on the topic. In comments to LifeSite, Burke sounded initially cautious, saying of Benedict’s abdication that he believes “it would be difficult to say it’s not valid.” But addressing one of the main points of contention, he also said that “it seems clear he [Benedict] uses interchangeably ‘munus’ and ‘ministerium.’ It doesn’t seem that he’s making a distinction between the two.” Further:
Concerning Benedict’s final Wednesday general audience, he said while he finds it “disturbing,” he doesn’t believe Benedict’s “always and forever” comments constitute substantial error (according to can. 188 and can. 126) with regard to his abdication “because it’s clear from the declaration that he was renouncing the munus.”
“We can say that these are mistaken notions,” he said, “but I don’t think you can say that they redound to a non-abdication of the Petrine office.”
“That’s where the dictum ‘de internis non iudicat praetor’ comes in,” he explained, echoing Cardinal Brandmüller. “The Church would become completely destabilized if we couldn’t depend upon certain juridical acts which carry effects.”
“Whatever he may have theoretically thought about the papacy, the reality is what is expressed in the Church’s discipline. He withdrew his will to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, and therefore he ceased to be the Vicar of Christ on earth,” the former head of the Vatican’s highest court explained.
“He abdicated all the responsibilities that define the papacy (cf. Pastor Aeternus) and therefore he abdicated the papacy.”
Cardinal Burke called the notion that the papacy could be bifurcated or expanded “fantasy.”
“The office has to inhere in one physical person,” he said.
Though debate on this topic is certain to continue, it is important to recall again the words of the pope emeritus himself on the question:
There is absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry. The only condition for the validity of my resignation is the complete freedom of my decision. Speculations regarding its validity are simply absurd.
It is quite the commentary on the current state of the Church that it has become so difficult for so many to take him at his word. We strongly recommend that you read the entire piece from LifeSite right here.
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.