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Resigned to confusion

Benedict XVI's announcement Monday morning took nearly everyone by surprise, and left even the experts at sea when it came to the obvious questions: Can he do this? And what happens now?

Actually, the answer to the first question wasn't so hard: sure he can. Not, as some would have it, because he's "infallible," but because Canon Law provides for it. But since it hadn't actually happened in many centuries, the vocabulary to describe what was happening was elusive. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable sensation for experts on religion, and especially on Catholicism. When you have a pope, you are supposed to know who's in charge. When you have a comprehensive set of rules and guidelines, you are supposed to have all the answers. Surely this, too, was a situation that could be fully explained.

So, when it came time for the liberal-media critics at Get Religion to react, Terry Mattingly wrote a blog post with the title "No, Pope Benedict XVI did not resign." Gotcha, journalists:

Yes, "resign" is easier to fit into news headlines. The problem is that a pope has no one to resign to, other than God. The correct word is abdicate.

There's that comforting feeling of control. But wait, correct according to whom? Not Canon Law: Can. 332 2. 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.

(If you want to get really technical about it, the Latin reads Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur. So fans of formal equivalency might want to insist on "renounce" as the really and truly "correct" word for what the pope has done. Good luck with that.)

The larger reality is that what Pope Benedict did on Monday is not covered in anyone's style book. Dictionary searches--Mattingly's source--do not cut it (the definition of "resign" is every bit as apt). So whence this certainty that abdicate is the correct term? Perhaps it all goes back to George Weigel, who told NBC News on Monday morning that abdicate "is frankly the word in this occasion. A resignation is something that someone hands to someone else. Popes have no one to resign to, so this is an abdication." (Thanks to Matthew Schlitz of First Things for the transcript.)Weigel dixit. Others fell in line: Ross Douthat, for example. Amusingly, Patrick Brennan, doing his own media criticism at NRO, found culpable ignorance running in the opposite direction: "Popes do not abdicate;" he sniffed, quoting a story at BuzzFeed, "per 332, 2, of Canon law, they resign." It would seem that, in fact, either term is perfectly adequate. But whichever you prefer, what really matters is that youre smug about it.

As Joseph Komonchak wrote here on Monday, the ailing John Paul II is supposed to have greeted questions about the possibility of his stepping down with the quip, "To whom would I submit my resignation?" I think Fr. Komonchak's answer -- "To the church" -- is a good one. The pope is servant of the servants of God, after all. Servants have no trouble resigning. For that matter, is it even true that, as Weigel says, a resignation is something that someone hands to someone else? Canon Law seems to have foreseen such a quibble.

Why, then, raise the issue at all? Canon Law has no objection and past precedent is useless. Unless, of course, that precedent is a certain recent pope who did not resign, or retire, or abdicate, at a time when observers were suggesting that it might be a good idea. There were many who defended John Paul II's decision to stay in office, pointing to the valuable witness he provided to the world of perserverance in suffering. But some defenders went further, insisting that his decision not to resign was the only possible decision -- the pope couldn't resign; it would be wrong for the pope to resign. "Christ didnt come down from the cross," John Paul II is widely reported to have said, although I dont know who first claimed to have heard him say it. I cant find an original source for the "to whom would I submit?" quip either. But they were both widely repeated in John Paul II's last days. Popes don't quit was the implicit message. They answer to God.

Now, in his decision to renounce his office due to physical weakness, Benedict has implicitly disagreed with all such arguments. Whether or not he privately believes his predecessor ought to have resigned, he clearly does believe that the option was available. There's not much anyone can do to get around that awkward fact, but if you once insisted that it was impossible for the pope to resign, you may still be able to save some face with semantic pedantry.

William Saletan has noticed some convenient reversals: "A chorus of Catholics is singing a new tune," he wrote at Slate. I think "hypocrisy" is too strong a term for the examples he calls out. Predictable brown-nosing might be better. Peggy Noonan's gushing is certainly (even more) embarrassing in retrospect. (I do love her image of BXVI bearing away the burden of the sex-abuse crisis as he goes -- more than a bit reminiscent of her suggestion that the United States ought to just keep walking past and away from the evidence of its recourse to torture and abuse.) In any case, I'm not as confident as Saletan that the two positions he outlines are mutually exclusive: either Benedict is making the right decision and John Paul made the wrong one, or vice versa. Different strokes for different popes, perhaps. And it isn't necessarily a symptom of mindless groupthink to hope that both men might have been guided in their different paths by the same Spirit. I do agree, though, that if we must react at all, more honest questioning and less self-contradictory certitude is called for.

It's not a bad thing for us Catholics to be surprised now and then -- even by the pope. In fact it's probably quite healthy. But if you're still feeling too shaken up by this dramatic departure from tradition, you can always lean on that old reassuring phrase: "As the church has always taught."

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Wonderful... I've wondered about future forms of address- Will he be like past -presidents and still called "pope" or as " Cardinal Ratzinger, formerly Pope Benedict XVI" or other variations. "Whatever"... as my teenage son tells me!The separation of the person and the function/role is certainly the most interesting, I think... I keep thinking about other such roles, most notably the Dalai Lama. I know the choosing and philosophy is so different with the continuance of "transmission," as I understand it, but still I think the precedent here will open speculation that we have not allowed in regard to church functions. "Charism" will bear some re-examining.Personally, I never liked the denotaton or connotation of "resigned" if it were not truly voluntary anyway. I know when I wrote to the bishop many years ago about being a priest who wanted to marry and instructed that I should "resign," I wrote that I would be sadly "resigned TO" the fact that my choice would make ineligble for service in the present dispoition, but I was not "resigning FROM" a ministry and function that I loved and valued.

I just received an email from an GERALD MORGAN who seems to be associated with Irish sex abuse survivors. I Googled his name and there is a Gerald Morgan who is a lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin. The email states that the field director, a Rev. Kenneth Annett, of the International Tribunal into Crimes of Church and State (ITCCS) in Brussels issued a press release alleging:Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger, has scheduled a meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for Saturday, February 23 to discuss securing protection and immunity from prosecution from the Italian government, according to Italian media sources.Ratzinger's meeting follows upon the apparent receipt by the Vatican of a diplomatic note from an undisclosed European government on February 4, stating its intention to issue an arrest warrant for Ratzinger, who resigned from his pontificate less than a week later.IF, IF this report is true, it would seem that Ratzinger is resigning for reasons more than just his advanced age and health concerns. It changes everything about his abdication and the upcoming papal conclave.All Catholic journalistic organizations MUST report on these allegations. We need to know if our church leaders are conducting an international cover-up of crimes against humanity.

Jim Jenkins:I really don't think so. And though I never met Sister Mary Adelaide, I tend to believe she would join me. This, as Joe Biden is wont to say, is malarkey.The president of Italy has very restricted authority, largely limited to accepting the resignation of a government and giving the mandate for the forming of a new government. That President Napolitano and Pope Benedict have developed a very cordial friendship has been amply covered by the reliable Italian media. The meeting on the 23rd is a visita di congedo, a farewell encounter.

As annoying as Terry Mattingly is, the upshot is that we can enjoy it when Mark Silk stunts on him.

@ John Page: Sad you never met Sister Adelaide. You're right, she had a built-in malarkey detector.[I hope your intuition is correct - it's just that we need to KNOW. I have dealt with enough clerics and hierarchs to know what they are capable of - and believe me, resigning just ahead of damning developments becoming public is certainly within Ratzinger's wheelhouse. I have to admit that I've been skeptical of the public reasons given for the abdication ever since I learned that Ratzinger will be residing in retirement within the Vatican - still protected under international immunity laws. For instance, Cardinal William Levada didn't return to California until his legal immunity status in retirement was reaffirmed by the US Justice Dept. How's that for planning ahead?]Here are some sober voices that I picked-up from the British Catholic weekly newspaper, The Tablet:One cannot but admire Pope Benedict for the integrity which he has displayed in resigning, when he realised that he is no longer able to discharge the demands of his office. This action is also a tacit admission of the failure of his conservative policies. All Catholics who can approach cardinals would perform a great service to the Church, if they can persuade the electors to choose a pope whose attitude to the future is one of complete openness. (Dr) Michael M. WinterLondon N19 The Pope having resigned, three questions strike me: first, given this virtually unprecedented action, what other changes in the Church suddenly become possible? Secondly, what difference will it make that a living pope will undoubtedly have an influence on the choice of a new pope? Thirdly, what entirely new role will social media play in the debate preceding or perhaps given the number of apparent leaks during the last one even during the conclave?Vicky CosstickLondon SW17

"a living pope will undoubtedly have an influence on the choice of a new pope" -- perhaps less than the suddenly sanctified John Paul II has on the last conclave

" It would seem that, in fact, either term is perfectly adequate. But whichever you prefer, what really matters is that youre smug about it"In reading other blogs, those with a traditionalist viewpoint insist on "abdicate" because they say they see the Pope as a monarch who "abdicates" rather than a president or manager who "resigns".

Bel Giorgio isn't resigning from his position, personal secretary. He'll be living in the Vatican gardens with Benedict.

Retire? Relinquish?Abjure?Why does it matter? I read somewhere that he will remove his ring -- the symbol of his authority, and it will be destroyed.Does infallibility evaporate as the pestle crushes the Ring of the Fisherman?

"I have to admit that I've been skeptical of the public reasons given for the abdication ever since I learned that Ratzinger will be residing in retirement within the Vatican - still protected under international immunity laws."It will be interesting to see how the new Pope handles that. I read a couple of hours ago that Bishop Gaenswein intends to keep his role as Prefect of he Papal Household but will also be Benedict's personal secretary and live with him and the four religious women who are his cooks and housekeepers in the renovated monasterySounds a little bit like having the last president and his Chief of Staff move into Blair House across the square from the White House - and his Chief of Staff continue to do the same job for the new president. According to the Global Post article "The Vatican has hinted that Benedict could continue to have a behind-the-scenes spiritual role as guide for his successor" guess this all assumes that the new Pope will go along with this scenario.

Resign vs Abdicate.How about "I quit"?In Latin.

More opinion from outside the Catholic bubble: believe the Italian press is fond of referring to B16's personal secretary as "BELLA Giorgio" - using the feminine ending. What in heaven's name could they be getting at?Considering that papal resignation is really uncharted waters for the Vatican (especially in a modern era when national governments and the press/media have such enormous power), it seems logical that B16 and his closest confidants would have to have thought through all the permutations of different scenarios which could confront the retired pope and the Vatican. Let's hope that the curia have all their bases covered because it is only logical that Ratzinger's opponents, as well as the church's real enemies, will feel emboldened once he no longer has the aura of the papacy to protect him. Some of the folks that Ratzinger stepped on, or over, on his way up the ladder may have more than enough incentive to look him up now that he won't be so infallible anymore. [Couldn't that be one way of interpreting the Vatileaks scandal?}Something tells me that Ratzinger's retirement will not be without its challenges - for the Catholic Church and for Ratzinger personally.

Jim, it would explain why Benedict wants to live in Vatican City instead of moving back to Germany - immunity.

It's Archbishop Ganswein. And a new pope can easily replace him, and certainly should.Why should the former pope have an immediate pipeline into everything that goes on in the new papal household? Resignation ought to mean letting go and not peering over the new pope's shoulder.

Mr. Jenkins - you may have added fuel after today's state of Rhode Island ruling that quashed the Legion of Christ's manuevers to keep records secret in the multi-million dollar donation scandal. Per those involved, there will be information released about the Vatican and LC that have never seen the light of day.OTOH - do think that legal due diligence is covering the bases so that he has immunity where and when he can get it but, worst case, sounds more like some type of Dan Brown conspiracy theory.

Per some reports, Ganswein will continue his role with B16. Would expect that he will be replaced as papal household prefect.From John Allen: "On another front, Lombardi confirmed that Benedict will be accompanied to Castel Gandolfo on Feb. 28 and later to the monastery on Vatican grounds where he plans to live by Archbishop Georg Gnswein. The 56-year-old Gnswein is the pope's longtime personal secretary, and Benedict recently also made him the Prefect of the Papal Household, a position previously held by American Cardinal James Harvey. Lombardi said Gnswein will continue to hold that position into the next papacy, presumably living in the monastery and going to work each day once Benedict gets settled. That news led to an interesting question during the briefing. The Vatican has repeatedly said Benedict will not have any role in the next papacy, but a reporter asked Lombardi if the fact that his closest aide will also be running the papal household doesn't create an obvious channel to wield behind-the-scenes influence. Lombardi's response was one of those rare moments when a Vatican official says something out loud that insiders know to be true but rarely dare to acknowledge publicly. In essence, Lombardi said being the Prefect of the Papal Household isn't that big of a deal. "It's a very practical position, having to with the pope's appointments," he said. "It is not involved in matters of governance."

I think Pope Benedict knows that he would, for security reasons, be much safer in Vatican City than anywhere else. I would be afraid that were he to live elsewhere, perhaps in a monastery in Germany, that some nut might break in and take him and put him on TV for all the world to see with a knife at his neck. Unlikely, yes, but it would be a huge coup to hold the former Pope hostage. I could easily imagine an Islamic terrorist group wanting to do so. No, too risky.

In re: Ganswein. Let's not be naive. Washington knows only too well that access is power. It's why lobbyists with up-stairs connections are paid so very well. Secretaries make appointments for their bosses, i.e., they give access to him/her, which is power. They also pick up gossip, some of which is important, and they can subtly make their bosses' views known, and they can channel "secrets" and spread rumors. Women secretaries used not to be paid a lot, but that was an injustice. Men with the very similar duties usually had different titles and much better pay as "exective assistants" or whatever, etc.My question is: who is making all these decisions about Benedict's future without the approval yet of the next pope? Are the cardinals who run the place so sure that their own man will will the election? Doesn't it make you wonder about the possibility that there are outside, sinister forces at work. If so, who might Ganswein really work for? Opus Dei? (Nah. That's Dan Brown thinking.) (?)

How many Opus Dei cardinals are there?

Nobody asked me, as Jimmy Cannon would begin, but . . .I. The pope's resignation/abdication/renunciation should be accepted with one condition: he must continue writing for ten more years. Among other topics he might pursue I have in mind a cultural history of Catholicism, along the lines of Jacques Barzun's best-seller From Dawn to Decadence (completed when Barzun was 92). If there were someone who could do a superior job I would excuse the pope but I don't see anyone else on the horizon who is half as capable. Perhaps Rowan Williams could help out on literary matters.II. Those worried that Benedict might avoid jail by remaining in the Vatican should realize he has another option. The Knights of Malta have sovereign territory in Rome, on Via Condotti and on the Aventine Hill. He could make an escape by way of the passage from the Vatican to Castel Sant'Angelo, a route used to escape capture in the 1527 Sack of Rome. Once the pope reaches their territory t he Knights would probably put up a more robust defense than the Swiss Guard.III. I went on a tour of the Vatican Gardens a few years ago. The official Vatican guide at the time recommended the gardens at Villa Medici across town as far superior. Of course her disloyalty profoundly shook my faith and I now see it as a foreshadowing of the treasonous behavior shown by the papal butler. But there is some truth in her observation and so the pope might want to consider the Villa Medici, owned by the French, as an alternative to the Vatican (and perhaps more cat-friendly).

" If so, who might Ganswein really work for? Opus Dei"According to the Tablet, he taught at he Opus Dei University of the Holy Cross in Rome and may have started his studies at he SSPX seminary at Econe before switching to the diocesan seminary.

Poor Gorgeous George. I expect to see him in the next Dan Brown novel, under a different name, of course. Heilige Heinrich maybe.

@Rita Ferrone. I agree with you about Ganswein. That makes a lot of sense

Goodness. Reading some of these comments leaves me feeling like I'm in the Twilight Zone, much as I did during Pres. Obama's first term with its rampant conspiracy theories. I'm no fan of our Benedict's decisions and policies, but depicting him as a law-evading scoundrel is over the top. Let's just accept that the man is sick and tired, had the option under Canon Law to get out, and did so.

Goodness. I feel as though I'm in some sort of Twilight Zone with all these far-fetched conspiracy theories oozing through the cracks of what is, granted, an almost unprecedented situation. I'm not a fan of our current Benedict's policies and decisions, but depicting him as a law-evading scoundrel is over the top. As for his connections with the Legionnaires, let's not forget that he wasted no time

" fact, either term is perfectly adequate. But whichever you prefer, what really matters is that youre smug about it."I have a bone to pick about this statement from the original post.There's quite a fight over symbolism going on in the church, one which has become a flaming row during Benedict's pontificate in particular. That fight is between the image of the pope as an imperial figure, an absolute monarch, and the pope as a ministerial figure within a more participatory, responsive form of church governance. Remember the banner featuring a tiarra (it was taken down)? Remember the renaissance vestments and the commissioned new copies of such items? This isn't just costumery. It's about a model of governance.The word "abdicate" is not about semantics. It's a way of saying the Pope is The King. He is on a throne. You are his subjects. There's a completely clear message here.

If reports out of the Vatican are to be believed, [I don't take anything that Federico Lombardi says on face value - he is a dissembler from way back.] B16 has reversed the very conclave election rules that allowed him to skate to a lightening victory on the first day of balloting back in 2005. Apparently, B16 changed to the rules back to now where the conclave NEEDS a two-thirds majority to elect the next pope.Since everything about conclaves are so opaque, we can never know for sure but it would seem that the next pope will have to cobble together a much broader coalition of cardinals than did Ratzinger with his simple majority. This could mean that the conclave could last longer, maybe even deadlock.(I realize that I am probably engaging in nothing more than hope) But this procedure may give credible outside-the-curia candidates time to emerge. Maybe, just maybe, a non-European could have a serious run at it? But this is does not mean that we can start singing "Happy Days Are Here Again!" Many, if not most, of the cardinals from Africa, Asia and Latin America are about as hideous as the old bulls in the curia.But please, no more Poles or Germans! And please, let's hope and pray that Dolan doesn't get his itchy little fat fingers on the papacy. My prayer is for a pope who at least has a world view informed by science and intellectual rigor. My greatest wish would be for a pope who can begin to end the hierarchy's misogyny.I don't know how the "Boys in the Curia Band" may have rigged the whole papal election process to elect another Ratzinger, because it may be that the best man for pope is probably not even a cardinal at this time. What kind of miracle would it take for the cardinals to be broad thinkers enough to pick someone from outside their little old boys club?I know. I've just past over into the Twilight Zone ...BTW: Ratzinger could begin the healing if he would exclude, bar from participating in the conclave any cardinal who has demonstrated that he betrayed the trust and confidence of the people by his complicity in the rape and sodomy of children by priests. A few names come to mind: LA's Mahony, Chicago's George, Ireland's Sean Brady ... There are more for sure - the Austrians, Germans, Belgians, French, Australians have their stinkers too. Along with his resignation, this would be the way that Ratzinger finally wins the love and appreciation that has alluded him during his papacy.

In essence, Lombardi said being the Prefect of the Papal Household isnt that big of a deal.Its a very practical position, having to with the popes appointments, he said. It is not involved in matters of governance.

Agree with Ann. He has access and relationships and that equals influence. Just study systems theories in management and how management REALLY works. It never works according to how it is outlined on paper. In practice, people have way more influence than they or we might think.The fact that he is still there, in whatever capacity, means that he retains some degree of influence. Lombardi is minimizing his role either deliberately or very naively.

Saw this today ..."Beyond the gossip about why the pope might have really resigned are growing conspiracies that there is a faction of cardinals who dont think the pope should live inside Vatican City after he retires. Several unnamed cardinals have been quoted in the Italian press saying that it would have been better if he returned to Bavaria in Germany or lived out his days somewhere like Monte Cassino, a hilltop abbey south of Rome. Asked if the pope consulted a group of cardinals about where to live after he retires, Lombardi said that he didnt have to. The successor and cardinals will be very happy to have nearby a person who more than anyone understands the spiritual needs of the church and his successor." -

Though we can't be 100% sure, very reliable indications are that Cardinal Ratzinger was elected by a two-thirds majority vote on the fourth ballot of the second day, 19 April, of the 2005 conclave. By the rules then in place (promulgated by John Paul II), a simple majority would NOT have been sufficient as early as the second day of voting. Nearly a third against? Very possible. A simple majority? No.Prejudices should not be substituted for facts.

I read today that one reason Benedict was concerned about his health is that a number of his Ratzinger relatives have had strokes, and he was concerned about being in a coma, etc. He decided that it would be best to risk some negative fallout from a retirement than to have the Church without a pope for an extended period of time. Makes sense to me. (Sorry, forget where I read it.) (Hmm.)

"How about 'I quit'?"How about Jon Stewart's offering: holy quit."The word 'abdicate' is not about semantics. Its a way of saying the Pope is The King."It also suggests those in power view themselves as nobles and aristocrats. The wish from George Weigel to the flunkies in Rome is that a pre-1776/1792 state will take hold if not in the world, then in the Church. It's about circling the wagons and marginalizing anyone who doesn't fit with the New Church Order.

@ John Page: Now who's "substitu[-ting] for [the] facts???" You also using an old debating trick of twisting another's argument and reasoning into a distorted straw man, then lighting the match. Caught yah! Your "prejudices" are showing, John.Page, you have no reliable way of actually KNOWING what actually went on in the 2005 conclave. None of us do. Most reports out of the last conclave described a situation where the opposition to Ratzinger never could produce a credible candidate. Like in all politics, if you don't have a horse in the race, it's hard to win. Many observers at the time and since [including "Whispers in the Loggia" who has impeccable inside Vatican sources] have said that under the JP2 rule changes [that is, a simple majority was eventually sufficient for election] had the effect of suppressing any alternative papal candidacies because Ratzinger went into the conclave with a majority of the votes in hand. Why publicly demonstrate your opposition to Ratzinger in the conclave when it was obvious he would eventually emerge as pope regardless? Who needs a vengeful enemy who is an absolute monarch and who has your future gripped in his talons?In the world's oldest all-male feudal oligarchy you always have to be on guard to watch your back. Ratzinger obviously had spent years lining up the votes he needed, apparently with the help of JP2. And, Ratzinger had demonstrated over his career that he is relentlessly vindictive to those who oppose him. [Just ask Hans Kung, the Liberation theologians, and American religious women?]I am more convinced than ever that B16 was elected to keep the lid on the boiling pot of rape and sodomy of children by priests and bishops. So far, reading the papal tea leaves, I suspect that Ratzinger's resignation is somehow tied to his no longer having the energy or wherewithal to keep the cover-up going. Actually, I am beginning to think that Ratzinger is showing his real political acumen by carefully constructing and arranging his escape from the papacy into a very well protected and insulated retirement within Vatican City, with cloistered nuns to attend him, just beyond the reach of subpoenas and international criminal tribunals.[There are now growing numbers of reports in both the Italian and German press of rumors that a "Western government" was about to issue an international warrant for Ratzinger's arrest - just rumors. I can't think that any European government would move against B16 now that he is retreating into a monastery. Nonetheless, that can't be good news for poor Joseph as he contemplates his legacy ...]

Mary McAleese. Remember that you heard it here first!

According to La Stampa 2000 theologians, including Hans Kung and Leonardo Boff, have signed a document outlining what they think thenew pope and curia should be, and it emphasizes collegiality for the bishops.

Jim Jenkins: I think this is the source of said rumors: know nothing about it nor the "Rev." who seems to be the pot-stirrer.

Best prediction yet: "The next pope will be Ratzinger lite, but without the charisma".

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