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Thinking incorrectly about Pope Emeritus Benedict

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 07, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, there was a report on the Veritas Vincit website suggesting that the Petrine ministry now has two components—an active element embodied in Pope Francis and a contemplative element embodied in Pope Benedict. If the reporting is accurate, this idea was advanced by Pope Emeritus Benedict's personal secretary and Prefect of the Pontifical Household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein. The occasion was tempting, I suppose: It was the presentation of a new book on the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

According to the story, Gänswein described Benedict’s role in the Petrine ministry as follows:

“He left the Papal Throne and yet...he has not abandoned this ministry,” Gänswein explained, something “quite impossible after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005.“ Instead, he said, “he has built a personal office with a collegial and synodal dimension, almost a communal ministry...” He therefore stressed that since Francis’ election, there are not “two popes, but de facto an expanded ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.”

Even with the emphasis on de facto (certainly not de jure!), this Janus-like description of the Petrine ministry is presumably useful to the source of the story. The masthead of Veritas Vincit International features a bizarre quotation from Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich: “I saw also the relationship between the two popes… I saw how baleful would be the consequences of this false church. I saw it increase in size; heretics of every kind came into the city. The local clergy grew lukewarm, and I saw a great darkness.”

With all due respect to Archbishop Gänswein, however, his enthusiasm for Benedict XVI has led him somewhat carelessly to envision a papacy which does not (and cannot) exist. I grant that Pope Benedict did not wish to appear to be repudiating the Petrine ministry; he simply no longer had the strength to exercise that ministry effectively. I also grant that he has the wisdom and the humility to avoid creating any tension between himself and Pope Francis, and indeed to live reclusively within the Vatican; he certainly did not wish to become the leader of an ecclesiastical faction. Finally, I have no doubt that the Pope Emeritus prays constantly and deeply for the Church, and I readily affirm that there are few men whose prayers could be more valuable.

But Pope Emeritus Benedict has not fundamentally altered the Petrine ministry, nor does he exercise any portion of that ministry himself. He has introduced an unusual set of circumstances in what we might call the ambience of that ministry, much as a former President of the United States might do if he were to continue living in the White House. But like such a president, Pope Emeritus Benedict has no part of the office with which he is inescapably associated. He has not changed the character of the office; he has not made it a “communal ministry” any more than the Curia or the pope’s friends makes it a communal ministry.

Again, I have no trouble believing that his prayers are those of a saint. But they are in no way those of a pope. Nor does Benedict any longer enjoy the special protection of the Holy Spirit which is a constituent part of the papal office. The papacy is neither Janus, nor the Lernaean Hydra, nor any sort of a team. It is the office of the altogether singular Vicar of Christ.

We must remember that if Benedict is the papacy’s greatest supporter, he is also its most self-effacing supporter. The lesson Pope Benedict so clearly wanted to give through his resignation was not that he would somehow balance his successor by providing the spiritual ballast to keep him from capsizing in the gale. No, his lesson is far, far simpler than that. Just as with those of us who have never been pope, Benedict retains no vestige of the papal office. Yet, unlike so many of us, he has not lost his serenity of faith. Benedict’s lesson is that the Holy Spirit remains at work in the governance of the Church. His point is that, despite stormy weather, the Holy Spirit is all we need.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jun. 07, 2016 11:16 PM ET USA

    Well said, however I don't believe that Pope Francis has commented on this yet. Who knows what further confusion will be sown if and when he does comment on it.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Jun. 07, 2016 9:19 PM ET USA

    I wasn't buying it either,Jeffrey.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Jun. 07, 2016 6:27 PM ET USA

    I feel as you do. Perhaps "communal" is a tough word for the Cardinal to translate effectively. Like him or not, we have one Pope at a time.