It has become arguably the most contentious topic among orthodoxy-loving Catholics in the Church today – did Benedict XVI truly resign the papacy, and, consequently, was Pope Francis legitimately elected, and is he a true pope?
There are quite a number of theories surrounding this interlinked pair of questions. Theories drawn from canon law, from interior intentions, from Latin grammar, and even from little more than circumstantial evidence (ie., Benedict still dresses like a pope and is addressed as “pope” so is he still the pope?).
What can be said with certainty about this issue is that it has struck division deep into the group of Catholics who are most opposed to the novelties and errors of the pontificate of Francis, and has become a significant distraction from that work. It has divided the resistance to heterodoxy, the immune system, as it were, of the Church, as expressed by those of her members who hold fast to the Sensus Fidei.
And the stakes are high. This is not an issue of “agree to disagree.” It seems clearly to be the case, based on the argumentation on both sides, that souls are hanging in the balance, and which side of the debate one chooses appears to make a very real difference.
Some of those who believe that Francis cannot be pope and that Benedict still is have gone so far as to claim that any contrary conclusion is tantamount to calling Christ a liar – a form of blasphemy, and an act of distrust that leads to loss of faith and, ultimately, despair.
On the other hand, those who believe, per the long-held teaching that universal acceptance of a pope, that the legitimacy of the election of Francis is infallibly certain — for good or for ill — are struck by the gravity of refusing to accept this, as expressed by John of St. Thomas:
“Whoever would deny that a particular man is Pope after he has been peacefully and canonically accepted, would not only be a schismatic, but also a heretic; for, not only would he rend the unity of the Church… but he would also add to this a perverse doctrine, by denying that the man accepted by the Church is to be regarded as the Pope and the rule of faith. Pertinent here is the teaching of St. Jerome (Commentary on Titus, chapter 3) and of St. Thomas (IIa IIae Q. 39 A. 1 ad 3), that every schism concocts some heresy for itself, in order to justify its withdrawal from the Church. Thus, although schism is distinct from heresy, in most cases it is accompanied by the latter, and prepares the way for it. In the case at hand, whoever would deny the proposition just stated would not be a pure schismatic, but also a heretic, as Suarez also reckons (above, in the solution to the fourth objection).”
Everyone, on both sides of this issue, shares common ground in their recognition of the scandal represented by the pontificate of Pope Francis — a scandal that is causing great consternation, driving some out of the Church completely, and instilling in others a spirit of rebellion against her authority.
In other words: it matters very much to a lot of Catholics to get this right.
And so a battle has gone on for some time. Now, it has escalated to the point where two bishops have openly joined the “Benedict is Pope” (BiP) side — Lenga of Khazakstan and Gracida of Texas. Conversely, Bishop Athanasius Schneider simultaenously admonished that to hold that Benedict is the true pope and Francis is not is not a tenable position for Catholics.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of canonists, theologians, and bishops have been inexplicably silent about the controversy. Where they might help to bring clarity, they have instead engaged in a mysterious silence.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Our Lady warned, in her apparitions in Akita, Japan, in the 1970s, that “the work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops…”
We have seen this warning playing out for several years now, and it seems only to intensify.
Enter, at this point, the work of the journalist Edward Pentin, Rome Correspondent for the National Catholic Register, and one of the most dedicated pursuers of the stories behind the crisis in the Church. He has published a report, dated today, on his personal website, detailing at length the positions taken on both sides in a balanced and thorough way that adds something new and clarifying, in my opinion, to this debate.
In it, we see the emotion of even those at the highest echelons of the Church. Take, for example, Cardinal Brandmüller, who confronted Benedict about his choices in previously published correspondence. Here, Pentin captures his frustration with the situation:
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a vocal critic of Benedict’s resignation, lamented the “many times” the former Pope has contravened that rule by making speeches, writing letters and giving occasional interviews. Benedict wished to retire “to pray in silence,” Cardinal Brandmüller said. “It was never going to happen.”
“This is why I am so angry,” he said, “and this is what destroys so much.”
According to Brandmüller, Benedict “had no idea what would happen” when he created the position of Pope Emeritus. He says that Benedict, unlike Celestine V, who famously resigned the papacy in the 13th century, did not consult with the cardinals before making his decision, instead, acting “practically alone.”
Brandmüller says he believes this act is demonstrative of Benedict’s “disdain” for the cardinals.
Pentin spends the bulk of his piece examining the positions from various sources not often heard from in the debate. He highlights the position of Msgr. Nicola Bux, a well known theologian and former consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who publicly requested a juridical and historical investigation into the resignation of Benedict.
Pentin says that Bux now believes that “the fracas over the Cardinal Sarah-Benedict book has highlighted how the ‘institution’ of Pope Emeritus — and an apparent bifurcation it implies between the Pope’s active and passive ministry — is ‘harmful to the unity of the Church’ and demands a resolution.”
Bux’s conclusion as stated above is, I think it’s fair to say, non-controversial, even to those who believe Francis is still the pope. The actions taken by Benedict, his recalcitrance in persisting in dressing like a pope, retaining titles, and imparting apostolic blessings despite being made aware of the confusion it is causing, his failure to observe his promised silence — instead seeing visitors, granting interviews, writing essays on selected topics, etc. — all of this has caused manifest problems that cannot be denied.
In a recent statement, Bux goes so far as to call Benedict’s resignation an “authentic monstrum [monstrosity; unnatural event].”
Pentin asserts that “Benedict is aware of the divisions and fraught situation in the Church that his resignation has caused,” citing the exchange of letters with Brandmüller in 2017. Pentin writes, citing Brandmüller, that “this is ‘absolutely’ a sensitive point for Benedict,” and that “Benedict has ‘discovered what he has really done, and seen the consequences.'”
Which raises the question everyone on all sides wishes to know: why won’t he address it directly?
It’s possible, of course, that he thinks he already has. Pentin notes the 2014 letter Benedict wrote to Andrea Tornielli, then working for La Stampa. In it, he wrote, “There is not the slightest doubt about the validity of my renunciation of the Petrine ministry. The only condition of validity is the full freedom of the decision. Speculation about the invalidity of renunciation is simply absurd.”
But Pentin notes that this statement “failed to quell questions about the seeming diarchy of the papacy.” Pentin continues:
On the contrary, the controversy over the validity issue has increased, leading some to insist, for the good of the Church, that Benedict simply issue a clarification himself. This could perhaps be achieved by one or two of his friends asking him to affirm that Francis is the only Pope, there is no bifurcation, and that he fully renounces all trappings of the papacy. Cardinal Brandmüller said he was sympathetic such an initiative.
However this question is resolved, Cardinal Müller believes the virtue of “prudence is needed here,” and noted that “many people are emotionally attached” to a pope and “transfer their sympathies unevenly.”
“Everything that causes quarrels and discord is not of the Spirit of God,” Cardinal Müller said, referring to disputes and, at times, vitriolic arguments that have become a frequent occurrence since Benedict’s resignation.
Let’s pray, then, for each other — especially if we’re on opposite sides of this issue — and for Benedict to find the courage and the humility to speak.
And for those who want to read the most thorough yet balanced report I’ve seen yet on the problem of the two popes, please read Pentin’s entire piece. It’s well worth your time.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director 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 seven children.