In the writings of the Second Vatican Council, and those of the post-conciliar popes, it’s hard not to detect a certain drift toward an increasing obscurity of language. When one goes back and reads older enyclicals, or papal bulls from prior councils, what is striking by contrast is the clarity and precision of the texts. Even when the language in use has a certain archaic aspect, the concepts are expressed in ways that are immediately understandable. It would seem that modern (and Modernist) theology has a circumlocutory effect on the mind.
Pope Benedict XVI, though certainly clearer than a number of his contemporaries, nevertheless is not immune to a kind of vagueness that can be frustrating at times. Never do I feel this more strongly than when he answers questions on the hotly contested issue of his resignation from the papacy and the strangely provocative symbolism of his life ever since.
Now, in a new book-length interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald, we see him address this topic again. Once again, he both reiterates his affirmation that he truly resigned and then introduces a question mark by talking about his retention of the “spiritual dimension” of the papacy.
Whatever that’s supposed to mean.
The full text of the book, just released in German, won’t be available in English until November. So for now, we have to content ourselves with translated excerpts.
An article on the book at the German Catholic website Katholisch.de makes clear that Benedict denies that either Vatican corruption or the “Vatileaks” scandal was the reason for his abdication. “My resignation has absolutely nothing to do with all of that,” he tells Seewald.
The article continues, explaining that Benedict did create a contingency that would cause his automatic resignation were he to become incapacitated:
Rather, it became clear to him near the end of his papacy that, in addition to a possible onset of dementia, “there were other possible signs of a capacity insufficient for the proper carrying out of the office.”
In this context the pope emeritus divulged that he, just like his predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II, had signed a conditional resignation notice “for the case of sickness, that would make an adequate enaction of the office impossible.”
Joseph Ratzinger had already done this “relatively early” in his pontificate beginning in 2005.
Benedict goes on to address questions concerning the extremely novel (and confusing) creation of the office of “pope emeritus,” which he likens to those bishops who retire for reasons of age while keeping an emeritus title.
In a more extensive summary of the book at LifeSiteNews (I strongly recommend you read the whole thing; it’s very good), Maike Hickson zeroes in on this portion of the interview, where the former pope shows his irritation, once again, at these questions:
Peter Seewald points out to Benedict that there are church historians who criticize the fact that he calls himself “Pope emeritus,” since such a title “does not exist, also since there are not two popes.” After first saying that he himself does not see why a church historian should know more about such matters than anybody else — after all they “are studying the history of the Church” —, Benedict quotes the fact that “up to the end of the Second Vatican Council, there also did not exist any resignation on the part of bishops.”
This is an apparent reference to his correspondence with Cardinal Walter Brandmüller in 2017. In that exchange, Benedict responded to questions about the office of “pope emeritus” from the former president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences with a decidedly sharp tone:
“Eminence!” he began. “You said that with ‘pope emeritus,’ I had created a figure that had not existed in the whole history of the church. You know very well, of course, that popes have abdicated, albeit very rarely. What were they afterward? Pope emeritus? Or what else?” …
“With ‘pope emeritus,’ I tried to create a situation in which I am absolutely not accessible to the media and in which it is completely clear that there is only one pope,” he wrote. “If you know of a better way, and believe that you can judge the one I chose, please tell me.”
Returning to the Hickson analysis of the Seewald interview, we see a consistency of thought from the former pope with that earlier exchange, if a bit less brusqueness:
It is here that Pope Benedict then draws a comparison with the papacy. For, such a retired bishop, he adds, “does not anymore actively have an episcopal seat, but, still finds himself in a special relationship of a former bishop to his seat.” This retired bishop, however, thereby “does not become a second bishop of his diocese,” explains Benedict. Such a bishop had “fully given up his office, yet the spiritual connection with his former seat was now being acknowledged, also as a legal quality.” This “new relationship with a seat” is “given as a reality, but lies outside of the concrete legal substance of the episcopal office.” At the same time, adds the retired Pope, the “spiritual connection” is being regarded as a “reality.”
“Thus,” he continues, “there are not two bishops, but one with a spiritual mandate, whose essence it is to serve his former diocese from within, from the Lord, by being present and available in prayer.”
“It is not conceivable why such a legal concept should not also be applied to the bishop of Rome,” Pope Benedict explicitly states, thus making it clear that according to his own ideas, he fully resigned his papal office while maintaining a “spiritual dimension” of his office.
He compares his concept of an emeritus pope with a bucolic image from his homeland of Bavaria, saying there is a “changing of generations” that happens wherein a father of a farming family will relinquish his home and the management of the farm while remaining in a smaller dwelling on the land.
“That is to say,” Hickson writes of Benedict’s analogy, “the ‘functional’ aspect of fatherhood can change, not his ‘ontological’ part.”
There are, of course, theological problems with this concept, as Hickson notes that Vatican theologian and former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith consultor Don Nicola Bux pointed out in comments to LifeSite:
“In my opinion, one of the most problematic aspects would be the idea, implicit in Pope Ratzinger’s act, that the papacy is not a single and indivisible office, but, on the contrary, a divisible office that can be ‘unpacked’, in the sense that a Pope may choose to give up some functions, keeping for himself others, which would not then be passed on to his successor. A clearly erroneous idea.” …
“The comparison of the papal office with the episcopal office in what regards the abdication of the papal office is not correct. The episcopal office is conferred by episcopal ordination or consecration, imprinting an indelible character on the soul of the bishop. Thus, while he may be relieved of a particular pastoral responsibility, he remains always a bishop. The papal office is conferred by the acceptance of the election to the See of Peter, that is, by an act of the will of the person elected, accepting the call to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. From the moment that the person elected consents he has the full jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff.”
If the person elected is not a Bishop,” Monsignor Bux continued, “he must be immediately consecrated a Bishop because the papacy entails the exercise of the episcopal office, but he is Pope from the moment he consents to the election. If the same person, at a certain point, declares that he can no longer fulfill the call to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, he loses the papal office and returns to the condition in which he was before giving the consent to be the Vicar of Christ on earth.”
While Bux’s analysis is clearly theologically correct — as he goes on to explain later in Hickson’s piece, the papacy does not imprint an indelible character on the soul as Holy Orders do — I’m not fully convinced that Benedict’s argument here is a strictly theological one.
I suspect, although I doubt we will ever truly know, that he is thinking in terms of symbolism, not sacraments. A sort of amorphous mysticism that he believes allows him some retention of a non-juridical part of what he has lost — or, it should be said, willingly relinquished.
My own analysis of Benedict’s various remarks about his abdication over the years has painted, to my mind, at least, a fairly clear picture: a man who was first and foremost an academic — a theologian, a thinker, not the “panzerkardinal” or “Rottweiler” that his enemies, mostly, would have had us believe. I do not think he ever wanted the office of the papacy, but he accepted it graciously, knowing from the outset, after a long career in the Vatican, that he was vulnerable to the machinations of the more sinister courtesans and power players in the Vatican court. Recall his plea at the outset of his papacy that the faithful would pray for him, that he “not flee for fear of the wolves.”
He knew what he was up against going in and how well his temperament suited that challenge, or didn’t. I recall, too, the time he allegedly told Bishop Fellay of the SSPX, who had, as the story goes, pressed him in a rare moment alone to act to end the crisis in the Church, “My authority ends at that door.”
He was a man who felt hemmed in, surrounded by enemies, unable to wield the power of his office to break through the bureaucracy and the scheming of his peers. Neither did he feel able to keep up with the demands of a life in the spotlight. One of the alleged reasons he resigned is that he could no longer physically handle the travel demands of the modern papacy. (Why he didn’t just say “No, I’m the pope, therefore the boss, and I’m not going” is another question.)
So as he has told the tale of his abdication, in bits and pieces, we see an image emerging of the man: he takes himself pretty seriously as a theologian and intellectual but also considers himself unequal to the demands of the papacy. Nevertheless, he is acutely aware that in a global media age, nobody would ever again, after seven years at the helm, see him as anyone but Pope Benedict. This arises more clearly in his exchange with Brandmüller:
“In my case it would certainly not have been sensible to simply claim a return to being cardinal. I would then have been constantly as exposed to the media as a cardinal is — even more so because people would have seen in me the former pope.”
He added, “Whether on purpose or not, this could have had difficult consequences, especially in the context of the current situation.”
At the time I published my piece on the Brandmüller letters, I noted how cryptic this final comment about “the current situation” was. But now, with the Seewald interview in place, I think I see what he was referring to.
Hickson writes that Benedict tells Seewald he wouldn’t weigh in on the effort of the four dubia cardinals because it “would lead too much into the concrete area of the church governance and thereby would leave the spiritual dimension which alone is still my mandate.” Similarly, he said he regrets when people say he intervenes in debates or use quotes from him in an attempt to show that he is meddling somehow in the Church’s governance.
And it’s true: one can easily imagine the reporters descending on whatever place he might have taken up residence — Bavaria, maybe — after having returned to the cardinalate. They would have done it every time Francis made some controversial statement or decision, wanting to know what the former pope thinks, hoping to pit them against one another in order to gin up the kind of controversy that sells news. In this sense, his seclusion inside the Vatican with its own security force makes more sense than ever — but not his conclusion that the retention of his titles and trappings of office were necessary. These things are unmistakably confusing, and his obstinacy in defending them without seeming to fully consider the consequences is troubling. These decisions were, not to put too fine a point on it, a mistake — one I fear he may be unwilling to admit to himself, let alone to others. Much like his justification of much that went on at the Council, claiming that the damage was due to opportunists or rallying to the cry of a hermeneutic of continuity, rather than admitting the triumph of the Modernist agenda he himself was a party to.
Making matters muddier, it remains a mystery just what he thinks the so-called “spiritual dimension” of the papacy might be that he could retain it, let alone for it to be a “mandate.” If I were forced to guess, I’d say I think he means prayer for the entire Church, but this, as well, is something he could have done after having returned to his previous state, even if it was behind the safety of the Vatican walls. It is a very odd thing indeed for him to hold on to something that he relinquished.
I was hopeful that this, at last, was the interview with Benedict that cleared things up once and for all. Sadly, this is not the case.
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.