The New Art of Pope-Watching

Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the retired pope's residence in June. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Monsignor Vincenzo Tizzani, one of the most remarkable witnesses of papal Rome’s nineteenth-century transition from temporal power to a landless spiritual authority, observed in 1871: “In the halls of the Vatican the human heart very rarely shows itself.”

He was talking about the studied subtleties of the court of Rome, where the pope, a supposedly absolute monarch, was far more dependent on his ecclesiastical nobility than other monarchs. That kind of papal court does not exist anymore; the world of more-or-less formalized clienteles is gone, or, better, those clienteles have changed names. Today it’s a less splendid stage; families like the Colonnas, the Barberinis, and the Farnese, with all their magnificence and munificence, have been supplanted by the middle classes of Catholicism, or—as some fear with the papacy of Francis—by “the people.”

Yet if that monarchic Vatican aesthetic is long a thing of the past, the art of pope-watching is clearly experiencing a renaissance. It’s an art that can now be practiced from a distance, as well, given the constant media coverage (traditional and social) of everything the pope does and says in public. In fact, there’s something about that coverage, in the repackaging and presentation of papal activities, that reminds me of the phenomenon of food porn, defined by Wikipedia as follows: “a glamorized spectacular visual presentation of cooking or eating in advertisements, infomercials, blogs, cooking shows or other visual media, foods boasting a high fat and calorie content, exotic dishes that arouse a desire to eat or the glorification of food.” If you follow Pope Francis’s Instagram, for instance, you may know what I’m talking about.

Yet Francis’s very way of being pope practically demands a new mode of paying attention. For example, his daily homilies at the morning Mass in Santa Marta make the pope seem more like a parish priest like no other pontiff before him. The pope talks more, and in a variety of genres, requiring a different type of analysis of the papal word. He also represents the next step in an ongoing de-sacralization of the person of the pope stretching back to John XXIII, who asked L’Osservatore Romano to stop using the phrase “as we gathered from the august lips” when quoting him. From now on, “the pope has said this” or “the pope has done that” would do just fine, he told the journalists of the official newspaper of the Vatican.

The papal word has expanded in ways not anticipated by those who pushed for “papal infallibility” at Vatican I as a response to cultural and political modernity

Pope-watching has changed also because once the Vatican was relevant mostly only for Catholics, or for that matter only certain Catholics: the clergy, theologians, Catholic politicians, a very limited number of diplomats, and agents of foreign intelligence (the archives of intelligence agencies are rich in memos about the change in Catholicism taking place at Vatican II and the political and diplomatic repercussions of those changes). Since Vatican II especially, the visibility and relevance of the role of pope has increased, making the Vatican a stage for global ecumenism, for interreligious dialogue, and for projecting a wider and more inclusive agenda. The papal word has expanded in ways not anticipated by those who pushed for “papal infallibility” at Vatican I as a response to cultural and political modernity. All this has led to an expansion of the Vatican cast and crew as well. The curia’s top personnel have become part of the show and are much more visible: the pope’s secretary, the cardinals, the advisors, the disgruntled opponents, the papabili. Then there are the Church-politics dinner parties, the theological conferences in Rome, and the conferences outside of Rome, all inevitably taking on a “pro” or “con” hue regarding Francis. And the once-obscure art of reading the palace signals has now become a democratized global hobby made possible by the internet.

One factor in particular has made the art of pope-watching more complicated and arguably more important: the resignation of Benedict XVI in February 2013. But this additional “material” for Vatican observers also presents a substantial challenge for the Vatican itself and for Roman Catholicism. Media coverage of Francis’s predecessor has come to be something of a substitute for theological reflection on and juridical provisions for the institution of the so-called pope emeritus (itself an inaccurate term, according to one of the top canon lawyers in papal Rome, Gianfranco Ghirlanda.) The press seems to be shaping popular understanding of a complicated situation that theologians and canon lawyers have not worked out yet.

There is nothing in the law of the Church about the moment after the resignation of the pope takes effect.

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. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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