An Office, Not a Person – Benedict’s Gift

Sede Vacante

The umbrellino and keys that signify a period of “sede vacante”

So I, like many people, was woken up this morning by what I thought was a story from the Onion – that Benedict XVI was resigning effective at the end of the month. Here, in no particular order, are some initial ecclesiological thoughts. Theologians of the future, be kind to my mistakes, we’ve only had the news a few hours!

First, the canonical details. Canonically, the resignation of a pope is almost identical with the resignation from any other episcopal office, with the exception that bishops are “requested” to submit their resignation to the pope upon turning 75 (Canon 401), while the pope, therefore, has no one to whom to submit his resignation. In fact, precisely to preserve his independence, in a canon to which you’re going to be subjected ad nauseam for the next three days, the Code writes that “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.” (Canon 332.2) Any resignation from an ecclesial office must be made by someone in proper possession of his mental faculties, which this pope obviously is.

Second, the good. I’m not speaking in facile terms about this particular pope, but about the value that this precedent sets for the 21st century church. You will note that in the preceding paragraph the repeated reference is to resignation from an ecclesial office. In resigning, the pope remains a bishop, since he has received the sacrament of episcopal ordination and that pertains to his person, not to the office. Less clear is whether he will remain a cardinal, even if not an active cardinal (as a cardinal over the age of 80, he is ineligible to vote in the conclave to elect his successor), but being a cardinal is, like ordination, something that pertains to his person, not to his office.

The best thing about Benedict’s announced resignation is that it helps restore our understanding of the papacy to that of an office rather than a personal possession. The pope exercises his authority as the bishop of Rome and, because of that, the universal pastor, as the head of a local church, not because of a permanent change in his personal status (like being baptized, being ordained or being made a cardinal). Benedict’s own ecclesiological background is helpful here, in that he knows very well what a difference this makes. One could even speculate that this is a not-so-subtle contrast with the personality-driven papacy of his predecessor, John Paul II, a style of papacy that Benedict has studiously avoided. In addition to the possible practical benefits of having a younger man (in Vatican terms…) at the helm, preventing the administrative and bureaucratic mayhem of the last years of John Paul’s papacy, this move symbolically brings the papacy down to its proper size. The papacy can now be clearly seen as a crucial office of the universal church, but one in which the pope remains an officeholder, rather than an irreplaceable, magical figure. I’d bet €20, if the Vatican could accept credit cards, that Benedict is doing this with a great deal of conscious awareness of the ecclesiological, and not just the practical, implications for future papacies. The precedent may well be his greatest gift to the church.

Third, the possible not-so-good. There are lots of potential future pitfalls here as well. What do you do with an ex-pope, especially given the personality-driven understanding of the papacy that has been active for the past few centuries? I would imagine that Benedict will retire to a monastery or even back home to Bavaria to write and pray, but even then he will retain a great deal of influence over the church as a whole and his successor. Like an ex-president, he will have a great moral challenge in resisting the urge to intervene, privately or publicly, in a way that suggestions could be reinterpreted as requirements. Benedict’s precedent-setting example in retirement, as much as in retiring, will be crucial. Will he, and will his successors, have the fortitude to allow a new pope to be pope without interference? Like Washington at the end of his first term, Benedict – or just plain Joseph Ratzinger again? – has a lot of responsibility in the precedent he sets after the resignation.

But again, this may well be Benedict’s greatest gift to the church, not only for a more consistently competent papacy, but for a renewed understanding of the proper place of the pope within a more collegial church. I’m cautiously hopeful given the last time a pope surprised a group of his cardinals this completely – when John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council.

18 responses to “An Office, Not a Person – Benedict’s Gift

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  4. I think this in many ways reflects a return for Ratzinger to an earlier stage in his ecclesiology, for it fits perfectly with the reformed vision of the Church’s future that he sketched in his 1969 radio address, “What Will the Church Look Like in 2000?” (published in the book, The Faith and the Future). This post-conciliar vision of reform (which I analyzed last year in connection to his raising St. Hildegard of Bingen to the altar) saw times of both crisis and renewal ahead for the Church, which would issue in a smaller yet holier institution. It would be a Church that shed its arrogant and palmy claims to worldly greatness in the pursuit of a humility born of the meeting with Christ at its heart and soul.

    This final act of his papacy sets a seal on Benedict’s vision of it as ministry rather than monarchy: his goal is, I think, to rehabilitate for the Chair of St. Peter an ancient definition that placed itself in service to the Church rather than ruling over it.

  5. Nice post. One point of correction. It would be more appropriate not to include the cardinalate as signifying anything like the ontological change we typically associate with baptism, ordination and marriage. It is an honor, not a fundamental change in the person

  6. As one who was somewhat, but not totally surprised (more the timing than the actual fact) by Benedict’s decision, I found myself quite intrigued by Dr. Flanagan’s analysis of what this might mean in future as well as at the present time. If indeed the resignation does result in a renewed understanding of the nature of the papacy as an office and not simply as a person — and especially if it helps reduce if not eliminate altogether the near personality cult of the papacy — Benedict will indeed have done the Church a great service (in addition to many of his very sound teachings, especially those found in his encyclicals). As to what might transpire once we have both a retired pope and an active one on the scene, the prospects are indeed intriguing, but it is wise not to be overly speculative regarding a situation that has not existed for many hundreds of years — and then in a very different ecclesial milieu from our own.

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