How they’ll even proceed in addressing this challenge is not clear. There is no established tradition on the forms (liturgical but not only) in which the Church should handle a pope who resigned the office (although “tradition” is being built day by day, before our very eyes, through traditional and social media). If there is very little theology on the “diocesan bishop emeritus” (a creature of Vatican II, fifty years ago), there’s even less on the “pope emeritus.” The only canonical, juridical provision for “pope emeritus” appears in the Code of Canon Law of 1983, at 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.” There is nothing in the law of the Church about the moment after the resignation of the pope takes effect.
Every pope in the last century has changed some of the rules for the conclave, reshaping the procedure for the choice of his successor, for the sake of the Church, when he is gone. It is different in the case of the pope emeritus. For a pope, regulating the life and ministry of a retired bishop of Rome will be like making preparations for his own retirement. We will see how and when the Church will regulate the life and ministry of the “bishop of Rome emeritus”—whoever he is (or whoever they are, if there’s more than one pope in retirement)—and whether the rules will be different from the very few prepared in secret by Benedict XVI in the months before he announced his decision to resign. In the last four-and-a-half years, no law (nor any discussion on one) for regulating the life and ministry of the former pope has been initiated, for obvious reasons: Benedict XVI is still alive, and no one thinks that preparing for future instances is a good idea now, because it would imply criticism of how Benedict XVI is interpreting and living out his role.
This has created something of a vacuum in the Vatican, one that journalists (and the community of interested faithful) have inevitably filled. There’s not just the novelty of the resignation, but also the novelty of Benedict’s XVI’s post-resignation persona and lifestyle. He is “semi-retired,” not officially teaching anymore but mentoring a few of his students, and many of his followers, through informal media and social media channels—thus amplifying his messages and expanding his audiences. Just one year ago a book-length interview of Benedict XVI was published, part of the attempt to reshape his own legacy. Benedict has no formal role in this pontificate, but any time he says something (like the message read at the funeral of Cardinal Joachim Meisner by Ratzinger’s personal secretary, archbishop Georg Gänswein, a few weeks ago) or writes something (like the new introduction to the Russian edition of his writings on the liturgy) it becomes news. News, because these statements help build the newly minted tradition of the “emeritus.” Yet it should be noted that the intentions of the emeritus are not the same as the intentions of Catholic journalists and commentators simply nostalgic for his pontificate. There is an undeniable amiability between Benedict and Francis that contrasts with the bitterness between the opposing camps of the papal commentariat.
Meanwhile, there are indications of a desire for regulatory process. Recently a number of German theologians and Church historians called for the emeritus to visibly relinquish use of the white papal apparel and resume wearing the black-and-red attire of a cardinal. Rules like this would make sense, but they would be just the beginning. What Benedict’s post-papacy life has made clear is the need to establish rules regarding access by and to the media. The logistical circumstances set up by Benedict XVI for his post-pontificate life—a monastic retirement in a monastery within the Vatican walls—has made coverage of the emeritus almost literally an example of “access journalism,” in which getting to speak to an important personality will influence what the reporter writes, which in turn will determine the degree of future access. Such an arrangement further excludes theologians and canon-law experts from influencing how the institution of emeritus is defined.
The changing role of theology and canon law for Catholicism in the post–Vatican II period has led to a more substantial role for the media, one that almost feels “constitutional.” Consider the so-called magisterium of the gestures, as applied to the interreligious meeting called by John Paul II in 1986 in Assisi: the photos, videos, and media reports of the event told us much more than the very short magisterial texts pronounced in the course of it, and more than even the after-the-event magisterial elaboration in the Catholic tradition. The same now seems to be happening regarding the “pope emeritus.” For as long no theological or canonical leadership emerges to take control of defining and regulating the institution, the media will be happy enough to do it.