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How, during the lifetime of a pope, can his successor gain the authority he needs? We are in a time of uncertainty: but we are also in God’s hands

We all need to approach the conclave without resentment or feelings of betrayal

By on Monday, 18 February 2013

Pope Benedict XVI waves after giving an address about Vatican II to clergy in Rome (Photo: PA)

Pope Benedict XVI waves after giving an address about Vatican II to clergy in Rome (Photo: PA)

The reaction of most Catholics to the Holy Father’s decision to abdicate at the end of the month has been largely supportive. Even those of us who wish he hadn’t done it have tried to accept his retirement as being the best thing that could have happened. Loyal Catholics are in the habit of accepting and being guided by the pope’s decisions, after all. But I am beginning to detect another current of opinion, one with which I have to admit I am not entirely out of sympathy. Don’t mistake me. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this decision really is in the best interests of the Church. Pope Benedict knows more than we do what he is capable of; and more to the point, perhaps, what the other factors are that he is taking into consideration.

But among loyal Catholics there is another reaction, of which we ought perhaps to take cognisance, since it may be a part of our own feelings that should be confronted if we are really to come to terms with the reality: the reality that we are now in the final days of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. It is this: the sense that for a Pope to resign is unthinkable: and that he shouldn’t, therefore, have done it. I myself wrote a blog last year (of which I have been reminded by crowing Anglicans) explaining why it couldn’t happen: these jubilant Anglicans have demanded that I return to the subject to explain myself (what they want is a grovel, which they’re not going to get): of that, more presently. But some quite moderate Catholics are beginning to question what the pope has done. Charles Moore, in the Spectator, puts it quite quietly: “Pope Benedict is stepping down for conscientious reasons about which he will have thought deeply. But I still fear that his decision is a mistake… The orthodoxy has grown up that the long physical decline of Pope John Paul II was a disaster which should not be repeated. This is not so… The papacy is a sacred office, and the idea that its holder gives himself to it for life, despite whatever suffering it may entail, is an inspiring one. John Paul bore moving witness to this.”

Certainly, I argued myself last year that the idea that the holder of the office of pope gives himself to it for life is indeed an inspiring one: and there can be little doubt, therefore, that there has been in that sense a loss. The question has to be this: now a modern pope has resigned, will resignation become habitual, even normal? The decision of the pope soon to be elected will perhaps be decisive: and I for one hope that he dies in office (unless he is very old I will not live to see it, whatever he does).

Charles Moore’s reaction must have been shared by many. But there has been a more violent one; and I wonder how common it is. “I am angry about what’s happened,” says the blogger A Reluctant Sinner, “ – very upset. I also feel let down by the Pope, and fear that his ‘resignation’ will prove to be the gravest threat to the Papacy since it was established by Our Lord nearly 2,000 years ago.” He goes on to ask “why has Pope Benedict XVI abandoned the flock which the Holy Spirit entrusted into his care? What is the grave reason behind his decision? … He, as a man, isn’t particularly severely impeded – he can’t be that weak … if he spent an hour yesterday making off-the-cuff, and highly intelligent, if not demob happy, remarks to the clergy of Rome! From what I have read and seen, he seems lucid; and, although physically frail, he is able to get about and perform certain functions (including Wednesday’s Mass in St Peter’s).

“Even if he couldn’t move much or was gravely ill, or whatever, I firmly believe that the / a pope doesn’t have to be a celebrity, travelling from one global function to the next – there is nothing wrong with just being the Successor of Peter; unseen, rarely seen, or hidden away and allowing others to do all the work. This is what most popes have done over the centuries.”

Last year, I argued that if Pope John Paul “had been an Archbishop of Canterbury … he would, of course, have retired 20 years before, in time for a final career, maybe as an academic, perhaps back at the Jagiellonian University — just as Rowan Williams is to end up at Cambridge. It does, in a way, explain why no Anglican archbishop can ever have the kind of spiritual authority for Anglicans that a Pope has for Catholics: the fact is that in accepting the crown of thorns that is papal office, the Successor of Peter gives himself absolutely and irreversibly: there is no escape, no possibility of a peaceful retirement; it is — or would be without the strength that only God can give — a truly fearsome prospect.”

Well, I was wrong about the possibility of a peaceful retirement. Pope Benedict’s, however, isn’t going to be like Rowan Williams’s or George Carey’s. He won’t be responding to journalists’ questions, or sounding off about this or that (as we can confidently expect Rowan Williams to do). He will live a cloistered life: he will simply disappear from view: and his life will be just as deeply consecrated to God by his original election to papal office as it was before, but in a quite different way: he will become, as A Reluctant Sinner suggests, what he could have been anyway – “unseen, rarely seen, or hidden away and allowing others to do all the work”.

Except for one thing: the person doing all the work will be his successor. And the question I then asked has yet to be answered by events. “You simply can’t have retired popes around,” I went on to say: “For how, during the lifetime of an ex-pope, would his successor ever gain the kind of authority a pope needs to have?”

That’s the big question. The fact is that there’s no way the present Holy Father can ever cease to be Benedict XVI. His pontificate is a historical fact: and he will still embody it. Will he overshadow his successor? In a way it’s a meaningless question. Even if he had died instead of resigning, it could still be asked. There are those after all (though not I) who insist that his own pontificate was overshadowed by that of Pope John Paul.

Has the papacy been weakened, as I said it would be? We simply cannot say: In St Paul’s words, “God knows; not I”. And we are all in His hands, as are both Pope Benedict and the man destined to be his successor. Above all, we must not allow ourselves to be overmastered by grief or anger, as some may presently be doing. This is an uncertain time: but uncertainty, if we go into it sustained by God, may lead us, in the end, into a greater certainty and a more glorious outcome.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    “Nobody is forgotten faster than the last pope.” It is often said about parish priests who seemed to be irreplaceable, but are quickly forgotten.

    A pope is an office holder in the Church. His authority comes from his office, not from his ontological personality. Church law and tradition, with several popes retiring in the past, is clear. Once he lays down the burden of office Mgr Joseph Ratzinger will be just a bishop emeritus, not a “pope emeritus” because no such thing exists. It will be as wrong to refer to the future Archbishop Ratzinger as “Benedict XVI” as it was to call the Duke of Windsor “Edward VIII” after his abdication.

  • scary goat

    Stop it, Mr Oddie!  You’re making me cry again just when I was starting to calm down a bit.  Pope Benedict was very special to me.  He came to office as I was preparing to be received into the Church, so he was my first “real” Pope that I had more than a passing interest in.  Also at a time when a lot of people were a bit “iffy” about him, I took one look a him and something in his face made me feel an affinity with him…..I knew he was going to be a good’un.  And everything he did since just went from better to even better.  To me he isn’t just “a” Pope, he is “my” Pope….and in a way he always will be. 

    But….we have to face reality.  We will have a new Pope….and the Holy Spirit will provide.  Who knows what “crown of thorns” Pope Benedict may be wearing? And it doesn’t necessarily set a precedent….we may not have another abdication for another 600 years….who knows? 

    I have been thinking ever since how to defend your position on the Abp of C.  I know a Pope will never be the same thing as an Abp of C for so many reasons. But it’s hard to concentrate at the moment, so I’ll leave it up to you. 

    I don’t think the question of authority will be a problem.  Pope Benedict is a humble man and I don’t think he will “overshadow” the new Pope, although the new Pope will have difficult shoes to fill.  God give him strength, whoever he may be.

    What can we do?  Just trust in God, that’s all.  We don’t understand….so let’s just hand it over to God.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    The problem is that the pope does not have a deputy (apart from the Bishop who deputises for him in the diocese of Rome). Given the work-load and the publicity, it is  difficult to see how the church could function with a Pope who was completely incapacitated–and given modern medicine and longevity, this is now a possibility–perhaps for a decade or more. In the present case. Of course much depends on the Cardinal Secretary of State, the nearest thing in the Vatican to a prime minister.

  • Jeannine

    “You simply can’t have retired popes around,”

    Of course we, the public, will never know what his physician actually said to Pope Benedict about his health. My friends & I speculate that this pope does not have much longer to live; some say in a matter of weeks. The media is already saying that he is blind in 1 eye & losing alot of weight. If true then that would solve the problem of having an “emeritus” pope around. ———I will still miss him.

  • Alban

    I have lived through Papacies since PiusXII. You’ll get used to things.

  • Benedict Carter

    Benedict XVI once abdicated should move to a secure but closed monastery, away from Rome, stay there for good and not say or write anything at all. 

    I just hope the new Pope is strong where this one has been weak, and courageous where this one has come down from the Cross.

  • W Oddie


  • Mr Grumpy

    And uncharitable to assume he has thought more of his own needs than of the Church’s.

  • David Haversham

    I never fail to understand why protestant controversialists continue to read and comment on articles in the Catholic Herald rather than confining themselves to publications from the wilder shores of heterodoxy.

  • Benedict Carter

    Neither unjust nor uncharitable, but I fear all too accurate from a close reading of this Pontificate. 

    I say that whilst being very grateful for Summorum Pontificum. 

    It’s no good starting a new direction if you are not prepared to bang a few heads together to make it happen. 

  • Mr Grumpy


  • David Haversham

    Wasn’t addressed to you Mr Grumpy :-)

  • AlanP

    I agree with you on one thing: that the new Pope should be strong, but I suspect we want him to be strong in different things.  To start with, he should shake up the Curia.  One thing I am fairly confident he will do, whoever he is: move towards ending the celibacy rule, by allowing the ordination of married men.
    Your remark about coming down from the Cross is just nasty.

  • AlanP

    One could say the same about SSPX sympathisers.

  • rjt1

    Canon law allows for the possibility of resignation, so I don’t see how we can invent our own theory of the papacy.

  • Don Camillo

    You are quite right about the Pope being an office-holder; but it will be for his successor to decide what Benedict’s title will be in retirement. Let’s just wait and see, shall we?

  • Don Camillo

     Yes, when I was a young convert Pius XII was “my Pope”- but I too got used to things.  “My Pope” now is just whoever it is currently.

  • Timt-robertson

    Does anyone have the intimate experience and understanding of the full significance of the papal office to be in a position to pass judgment on Benedict XVI’s decision ?  In anyone anywhere near as holy as he is ? This is a pope who deeply loves Christ and the Church and has striven to his utmost to raise up the Church to become as immersed in Christ as he so clearly is. He came to his decision on his visit to Cuba and ever since then, he told us, he was questioning his conscience about it before God, seeking to know if it was his will. It seems clear then that his decision has come from the depths of his intimate communion with the Lord, and accordingly we should respect instead of trying to second guess the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit in it, and trust that what has come as a surprise for the Church will be as fruitful for the future as was the surprise election of the Pope from Poland, now Blessed John Paul II the Great. God’s ways are above our ways, it says in Scripture. Let us be humble and patient and trust and above all, pray that the outcome in the new papacy will turn out to be one that all will have cause to welcome.

  • Fr Heythrop

    It’s the best thing B16 has ever done.

  • Benedict Carter

    This was a weak Papacy and at least one Cardinal agrees with me:

  • Benedict Carter

    It is the phrase of a Polish Archbishop, whose reaction to the news of the abdication was very negative. “You cannot come down from the Cross”, he said. And he was right. So no nastiness about it.

  • scary goat

     I expect I will, it just takes time :-)

  • scary goat

     I thought it was unkind….very unkind…I didn’t like that.  I think we all feel abandoned and confused….but should we stop loving him because he has done something we don’t understand?  What right do we have to judge something we don’t understand? Who knows what he is thinking and why?

  • Benedict Carter

    Come on, for goodness sake! Stop loving him or praying for him? Have I said that? But a weak Pope he was. 

    If one has the authority, but does not use it to further what one believes to be right, then you shouldn’t have the authority in the first place.

    Let me say plainly: what was he doing, writing three or four books whilst the Church was burning around him?

  • JabbaPapa

    Q : How, during the lifetime of a pope, can his successor gain the authority he needs?

    A : With the Divine Assistance of the Holy Spirit of God.

  • JabbaPapa

    At least one lay Catholic does not.

  • JabbaPapa

    I assume that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger will act always in full accordance with our Catholic duty of obedience to the Roman Pontiff.

  • JabbaPapa

    But a weak Pope he was

    Rubbish, Ben.

  • Peter

    The Pope abdicating is a sign not of weakness but of the Church’s new found strength and confidence in the assurance that her ancient doctrines are becoming increasingly vindicated as we deepen our understanding of creation.

    The Church no longer depends on Pontiffs to lingering in office inactive and ineffectual until their last gasp.

    The Church’s new found self-confidence founded on the realisation that God’s existence is demonstrable through a deeper understanding of creation, means that the Church can now marshal its resources far more actively and aggressively to combat the growing threats both from without and within.

    Good luck to the new Pontiff who will be even more formidable because of the invaluable advice he will receive from the old one.

  • JabbaPapa

    I was baptised under the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II and the reign of Prince Rainier III ; confirmed very shortly afterwards under the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI and under the reign of Prince Albert II.

    We are all of us ordered towards death, Faith, love, and Resurrection in the Glory of the Father.

    This flesh of ours is not our purpose.

  • Paul_David

    I converted in 2009 and so Pope Benedict XVI has been the only Pope I’ve known. However, I am obedient to the Pope and not to Pope Benedict.

  • Nano

    Should not Benedict set up residence in Avignon?  I only ask.  Mr Oddie’s article is quite telling and quite a number of Catholics I have come across in the wake of this resignation are as much angry and bemused as they are sympathetic and appreciative.  A sort of cognitive dissonance sets in.  How could he? – given the job description.  The Holy Spirit who was so instrumental in Benedict’s accession to office was likewise not to be found wanting in his quitting of it (Benedict prayed for guidance, strength and support for this decision and for the welfare of the Church from whose leadership he was resigning.  Did the Holy Spirit listen?)

    Is it a weak papacy?  It depends what your interests are and where you stand. Presumably, for writers like Randy Engel with her trashing of Paul VI, (really, Pope Pius XII onwards), her question marks over Benedict and his secretary (New Oxford Review) and her recent diatribe against Lesbian nuns, the Papacy could have been better.  Benedict is not a manager of men, not an administrator and neither a Machiavelli.  Those sympathetic to SSPX will not look upon him with undiluted praise and instead gear their judgments accordingly – perhaps they have a love-longing for the strong man who will clobber and clout and anathematize.  Other writers (I think of Damian Thompson) are fulsome, sympathetic and deeply appreciative of this very good and holy man, whose influence and intellect they see as long-lasting and utterly beneficial.  Others see him as driving forward using the rear view mirror from Trent and these liberal Catholics are not over-enthusiastic about Benedict and his achievements.  So what a potpourri of views we have – and our own worship only true in Rome!

    As for the resignation – does it set a healthy or an unhealthy precedent?  A Pope is subject to pressure, this way and that.  A weak man will waver and the ‘cross for life’ might not prevail.  Skullduggery, who’s in and who’s out, who plays the game etc., set against the vision of a resignation cannot but invite controversy and mayhem and open up untoward possibilities – certainly an event which has, according to the Tablet, sought to demythologize the institution of the Papacy.  No bad thing?

    In the modern world with its instant communications and ready accessibility a quiet, hidden and slow attrition of illness and death, whilst others about you take over the reins and sustain a myth, is no longer feasible.  The instant is the news and the instant demands immediate media attention – and gets it.  No quiet days of yore!  In Partibus Infidelium is bound to beckon, surely.

  • Nat_ons

    A cutting assessment Christian oversight, I suspect, yet not entirely unkind on the church’s temporal power – if unnecessarily dismissive of honourable pastors (throughout the ages).

    “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching” 1 Tim 5 : 17.

    Only the most mean of minds could suppose Benedict XVI – and Josef Ratzinger – is not worthy of the highest of all double honours, having laboured in preaching and teaching.

    King Edward VIII abdicated his throne to please himself and his lover; Benedict XVI has renounced his office for the good of Christ’s whole body – all of us (not his own satisfaction). The office is handed on, indeed, not the honour with which that office was fulfilled (nor any failings in the office holder, whatever they are). We honour still blessed kings and saintly popes, even those who have abdicated their thrones – for the good of others (although their due titles may change).

    PS: Being ‘just’ a bishop emeritus is no petty title .. especially if the bishopric is that of Rome, and it patriarchate. Josef Ratzinger, not least as Papa Ratzinger, has always sought to serve Christ in his people with fullest love found in Venerable Pius XII’s ‘Mystici Corpus Christi’ .. whether or not he did so always wisely is a different judgement. His Eminence Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Bishop Emeritus of Rome, for example, would be no demotion in honour, dignity or merit (and has some precedence in fact, for Cardinals); His Holiness as a title refers, in terms of honour, to present and past popes; however past popes (usually being deceased) were no longer serving as ‘Pontifex Maximus’ among Rome’s priests, and so could not use of the sovereign ‘servus servorum Dei” -   the only difficulty would be how the worldly authorities addressed a living past pope (especially if they sink to the level of indicting him to satisfy the enmity of a clique).

  • Patrick_Hadley

    The new Pope might make Mgr Ratzinger into a cardinal, but I rather doubt it. I would imagine that it will be made very clear that after 28 February (and while he remains alive) he is no longer to be known as Benedict XVI. Nobody would want to give the impression that we have two popes at the same time. JR will not hold the office of Pope so will not be entitled to the titles of His Holiness Benedict XVI. Monarchs who abdicate give up their titles; Her Majesty Queen Beatrix will revert to HRH Princess Beatrix.

  • AlanP

    I am a lover of all things Polish, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything a Polish Archbishop might say.  After all, archbishops have said many things which you don’t agree with, haven’t they?

  • daclamat

    Scholar that you are, dear leading catholic writer, vocation means calling.  So if fewer vocations, then the Holy Spirit is surely calling sufficient  to keep the system ticking over, while calling others for the Church reformed, while refraining from calling “more of the same”..  Benedict has surely given the lead.  May those he packed the college of cardinals with soon follow.Meanwhile, let’s see the end of the personality cult.

  • Daveofthenewcity

    “I myself wrote a blog last year (of which I have been reminded by
    crowing Anglicans) explaining why it couldn’t happen: these jubilant
    Anglicans have demanded that I return to the subject to explain myself”

    The thing is, you were not just explaining why it couldn’t happen, you were saying that the fact that it couldn’t happen made the Pope superior to The Archbishop of Canterbury (as can be seen in the extract that you quote here). Why do you always feel the need to run down Anglicans? It is a feature of your column that alongside justifying the ways of the Catholic Church (fine) you, time after time, denigrate others (not fine), reserving special unpleasantness for Anglicans.

    You continue in this column:

    “Pope Benedict’s, however, isn’t going to be like Rowan Williams’s or
    George Carey’s. He won’t be responding to journalists’ questions, or
    sounding off about this or that (as we can confidently expect Rowan
    Williams to do).”

    So now if the retired Pope Benedict does one day ‘sound off’ about something (it might happen, you know, you have been wrong once so you might turn out to be wrong about this too), you will have created an opening for more jubilant Anglicans.


    “what they want is a grovel, which they’re not going to get”

    As if! I don’t think anyone would expect you to grovel!

  • Maccabeus

    As more days pass by the negative implications of Ratzinger’s resignation loom larger, not smaller. His resignation will, I fear, prove to be a calamitous mistake. The papacy is for life. As someone in the Vatican is quoted as saying: ‘You don’t get down from the cross’. As for Ratzinger thinking he can spend the rest of his days living in the Vatican, this is ludicrous self-delusion. Neither the Church nor the next Pope can have an ex-Pope strolling around the place. Real politik will quickly kick in. And kick Ratzinger into some cloistered and secluded abode – probably atop a particularly inaccessible mountain in the Alps.

  • Sweetjae

    Those you judged as weak are the ones mighty in Eyes of the Lord, those who are hidden are the ones lifted up by God,if Mr. Carter lived in the time of St. Therese, he would by his own standard would consider her weak as well.

    Typical SSPX.

  • Sweetjae

    Mr. Carter will quote anybody even Hans Kung or Gerry Wills if it fits his agenda against the Pope and V2.

  • Cassandra

    No not weak. He is astute trying to prevent a schism. We have had enough of them.
    He was trying to lead by example.

  • Sweetjae


  • Cassandra

    Those books are worth reading! I do not agree with everything he wrote. But they have given a great deal of food for thought.
    He was actually trying to get to wider  audience by preaching the faith.
    At least he was comprehensible compared to his ghastly predecessor, who was so laid back, he could fall of his chair.

  • Sweetjae

    Like Christ had already banged Judas’ head but to no avail, same as this holy Pope has done, banged the heads of SSPX and Hans Kung and his minions but also to no avail. Well, at least all these banged-up heads will see each other side by side in the afterlife.

  • Sweetjae

    It’s called a hyperbole to stress a point. Christ did it all the time.

  • LongIslandMichael

    How was this papacy “weak”? If you believe so give specific examples. Also do you believe PJPII’s was “weak” as well? I for one think neither was weak. I think both were sent by God to lay the seeds for the Church’s future but I am curious for specifics on why you think PBXI’s and possibly PJPII’s are “weak” papacies.

  • No more NO!

    IF you listen to this audio file….. 

    you will possiblya)  Understand the Holy Father and stop criticising what he has been coerced to do. (the Holy Spirit)b)  Stop misunderstanding who the SSPX is.  They are not in schism with the Holy Father, WE are!


  • Sweetjae

    I’ll be honest here, from every variety of catholic blogs I went to since B16 announced his abdication, I have noticed beyond a doubt that those who have judged, criticized, accused the Pope of cowardice to just plain quitter are those coming from the ‘catholic’ Modernists and SSPX.

    Though they are opposed and abhorred each other, they have ultimately something in common. It’s so true the saying, “birds of the same feathers, flock together.”

  • Sweetjae

    “the papacy is for life”, NO, this is against Canon Law which is binding to all catholics. The papacy is NOT for life as St. Celestine did!

  • Sweetjae

    Honestly, it never came to my mind yet, kind of odd but it’s reality. What humility indeed!