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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.

  • Sweetjae

    So Mr. carter, do you also agree with the Polish Cardinal Stanislaw who was the personal adviser and assistant of Pope John Paul II on Vatican 2? I though SSPX hated both, now you quoted him?

    As long as its very convenient for you, huh?

  • aearon43

    The Holy Father has stated that is has considered the matter seriously and prayerfully and concluded that his strength (perhaps not physical but mental) is inadequate to the task, and I believe him (what kind of person wouldn’t?). I think it is more responsible to ensure that the Petrine ministry is executed successfully than it is to put on a show for the sake of keeping up appearances and some sort of dramatic romanticism.

  • aearon43


  • daclamat

    As he leaves (abdicates – my kingdom is not of this world) Josef Ratzinger is praised ,for being courageous and revolutionary, as he was when he was Cardinal Fring’s firebrand advisor, instrumental in defeating the machinations of the curia, bent on derailing Roncalli’s vision of a Church with Windows open wide. . What if? What if Ratzinger had been courageous and revolutionary at least once during his term of office, facing up to at least one of the crises in the Church. Courageous and revolutionary in his determination to do nothing.  As the song says: tired of doing nothing, working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do.  Courageous and revolutionary in stopping. God bless our pope, the e great, the gooo od.

  • Prof. Plumb

    St Celestine had to make it legal before he did it. Canon law is chopped and changed all the time, and is not infallible; in fact, there are distinct bodies of canon law, so we should be careful in saying which Catholics are bound to which laws. The Holy Father is not ‘bound’ to canon 332, but he may invoke it if he wants to. In a similar way, a pope in the future could delete canon 332 if he wanted to. Like any law, canon law applies the divine law in a given situation (in the same way that civil law is supposed to apply divine law in a societal context). We should not confuse canon law for Truth, and, while still preserving the respect that every person owes in filial obedience to the law, there are some legal prescriptions which one is free to believe are contrary to the divine Will, such as girl altar boys.

  • daclamat

    O my Gawd. The Rock of Peter and the Rock of Monaco. What an association of ideas!

  • Don Camillo

     Why speculate when a few weeks will settle the question?

  • Don Camillo

     Why speculate when a few weeks will settle the question?

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Sweetjae, if you would like to see a summary of criticism of B16 from conservative sources who are not SSPX then this article could be a useful source.

  • Peter

    We are not in a time of uncertainty.  We are in a time of certainty.  Certainty that God exists through the vindication of Catholic doctrine.   Vindication of doctrine is not only found in cosmology, but also in evolution.  It is astonishing that a theory energetically put forward to disprove God has ended up supporting God’s existence.   
    Our intelligence and awareness are the products of our more developed brain.  We can observe them in animals to a lesser degree because of their less developed brains.  Pride in humans, however, is not the product of our highly developed brains because, unlike intelligence and awareness, it does not exist to
    a lesser degree in animals with less developed brains.There is no evidence of pride in the animal kingdom.  If it does not exist to a lesser degree in the animal
    kingdom, pride cannot be the product of evolution.   Evolution has defined those characteristics which have
    evolved in animals, and pride is not one of them.  Pride is excluded.  Evolution has ruled out pride as an evolved
    characteristic.If pride has not evolved from the beginning, there must have
    been a time when man was not tainted with pride, when man had no inclination to
    sin.  This resonates strongly with Catholic doctrine which says
    that our first parents were innocent, free from the inclination to sin, until they committed the sin of pride by wanting to be like God.  And from that original sin of pride, subsequently inherited by mankind,  there flowed the whole of mankind’s inclination to sin. 

  • Mary C

    I love Pope Benedict and am sad.  I am not angry.  At 85 with one eye, hard of hearing, an increasing inability to walk and from looking at him – pain standing and sitting, he has said to the Lord – what should I do?  He’s talked to him for years about this situation, you can tell.  Then he resigns – why?  My answer is – out of love.  Love for the Church but also I think he resigned out of love for us.  Let’s face it, the Pope took the sins of the Church on his back and has been living a martyrdom.  This does not end when he resigns.  The hate heaped up on him right now shows this.  So, does our lack of love when we decide he isn’t doing what we need him to do.  We need him to stay out of our own needs and our own fears.  Does God need him to stay?  Not really.

     I understand the anger.  But we all know this man.  The Pope is a man of love.  He isn’t leaving us in the lurch.  He isn’t walking away.  He isn’t going into hiding to hide.  He loves and he knows what needs to be done and his is humble enough to say, I can’t do what must be done.  The people need someone who can.  Will we love him back?  Perhaps this is a test of us.  Perhaps, this is a chance to say to the Lord – I love you, not just your servant.  I understand that you are the Church.  Perhaps this is an opportunity for the laity who say they are faithful to show it.  For the laity to claim their real power, to love and show the rest of the world that being a Papist is about loving. 

    In this year of Faith, during Lent, perhaps we should reflect on the gift we were given and love.

  • Benedict Carter

    What do you know of the Society? “Nowt” sums it up.

  • Benedict Carter

    You area  very, very silly person aren’t you?

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I think you miss something.  He may be physically reasonably capable and mentally he still seems to be A1.  However there is a third aspect and that is the strength to take difficult administrative decisions with all the firmness that that needs.  Here I think he sees the need for a younger vigorous Pope with a thick hide to take all the flack when he decides, for example, to sack a bishop or two.  Benedict XVI will be just over the garden wall to give the incoming Pope that guidance and mental clarity that he will need.

  • scary goat

     Very nice.  My feelings are pretty much the same.

  • David Haversham

    Yes, that’s who I had in mind when I referred to ‘protestant controversialists’, given the SSPX preference for private judgment….

  • scary goat

     That was interesting.  I didn’t understand what he said about the NO Mass at about 0.55. though.  Jabba? Benedict? Someone?

  • Sweetjae

    Love your take on the matter which I think the reality of the man’s heart. Bravo!

  • Sweetjae

    I know the history of St. Celestine and the circumstances around him.


    I did not say Canon laws are infallible but yet they are Binding to the Church and her members because Canon Laws though have no coercive force like the civil laws of the land nevertheless has the authority whose ultimate source is God and manifested either by the very Nature of things (Natural Divine Law) or Revelation (positive Divine Law). Both are contained in Scripture and Tradition.

    Google: “Canon Law – Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent.”

  • Sweetjae

    Blessed JPII, ghastly? Laid back? Very judgmental, no charity whatsoever.

  • Sweetjae

    So Mr. Benedict, do you also agree with Cardinal Stanislaw, the personal assistant of Pope JPII on V2? Or it’s just convenient to you?

  • scary goat

     A lot of people feel it wasn’t very charitable to be so laid back about Maciel.

  • mrpants2

    We Catholics, or should I preface that with Roman, love our Anglican brothers and sisters. I am genuinely sorry if at times comments appear that are a tad too bullish. We have a fierce loyalty to the Holy Father, but I think it obvious that Benedict had a very real affection for Anglicanism and therefore so should we.

  • Benedict Carter

    You said the view expressed was “against Canon Law”. 

  • rjt1

    Is ‘Mgr’ the title for a retired bishop?

  • Stephen

    Mr Oddie was once an Anglican priest, so I hope his disdain for the Church of England is exceeded only by his humility in not claiming a pension from it.  

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Monsignor is used as the courtesy title for Bishops, including retired Bishops. In England we usually say “Bishop Smith” but in many other countries they will say “Monsignor Smith” for a bishop.

  • Parasum

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

    ## No problem – look at the previous examples of Popes who were elected after the abdications of their successors. “By election”, though correct as far as it goes, is presumably not the answer that’s wanted. That a former Pope will – presumably – in this instance be alive during the pontificate of his successor changes nothing. Benedict XVI will no longer be Pope. End of story. His successor will. Ordination to the priesthood, like Baptism, confers an indelible character – election to the Papacy does not. The only man with authority as Pope will be whoever is next elected (and, by implication, at least tacitly recognised as legitimate Pope by the Catholic world in general) as successor to Benedict XVI.

    FWIW, speculating about when a ruler will die, resign, or otherwise cease to be in authority seems in rather bad taste when said ruler is still in authority. It used to be a capital offence; one can see why. It’s like holding a wake for a living man. Whatever happened to the sin of curiosity ?

  • Parasum

    It would be very bad if a former Pope were thought to be the power behind the throne. a Pope who gives the impression of being the mouthpiece (or, what is worse, the glove puppet) of his retired predecessor would be in a thoroughly invidious position; he would be weakened, as would respect for him. It really doesn’t take much imagination to see this. A retired Pope acting in such a way would not be comparable to a highly influential non-Pope – Cardinal Ratzinger before his election, Cardinal Pacelli before his – because a a retired Pope has been Pope. Anything that would lead those who admired him during his pontificate to think less of his successor for not being him – as happened to Paul VI because he failed to be John XXXIII – should be avoided. Especially in the sentimental, emotionally incontinent, impatient Church we live in today. Di-mania outside the Church was bad enough once.

  • Parasum

    Sounded clear as a bell to me. What didn’t you understand ?  When he says “integrant”, he means “integral”.

  • Parasum

     Is Avignon still Papal property ? I don’t think it is.

    “How could he? – given the job description.

    ## Easily. It’s no big deal – it seems like one only because it’s rare, unexpected by the Church, and hasn’t happened since 1415 (which for most people amounts to never). And as a sovereign ruler, of course he can abdicate. The Pope makes the Church’s laws; and is not bound by those of his predecessors. He has well-nigh absolute power in the Church – if he wants to abdicate, then of course he can.  

    Bishops never used to retire. Now it’s usual for them to do so. The Pope is a bishop, of a prominent see, but still, that is what in essence he is. It might make more sense if all bishops, not just the Roman one, carried on as long as they could; or if all,including the Pope, retired round about 75. Having different arrangements in law for Popes & “the rest” causes problems. It seems better for bishops to die in harness, as they used to – they have co-adjutors after all. 

    “In Partibus Infidelium…”

    ## That’s gone too – the replacement phrase is instantly forgettable.  

    As for the Papacy being de-mythologised – does it even need that ? An institution which can hold a fun event like the Cadaver Synod of 897 is obviously no better than it should be.

  • Parasum

    Yes, JP2 was ghastly – at least for the Church. There is nothing uncharitable in saying he did things that harmed the Church, or failed to prevent what harmed it. The indecent haste which which he was beatified, and the lack of proper criticism of him during the process, merely suggests that he is not fit to be beatified. The slowness of a cause give time for the reputed Saint to be properly scrutinised, as is right, in view of the serious of the matter. JP2 made sausage-machine canonisation a fixture in the Church. A dodgy canonisation, unlike a dodgy sausage or hamburger, can’t be returned: the Church is stuck with it for keeps.  Kwikki Kanonisations are not something the Church needs.

  • Sweetjae

    By “against” I meant not found nor endorsed by Canon Laws.

  • JabbaPapa

    Both microstates have Roman Catholicism as their State Religion :-)

  • Sweetjae

    You only noticed the dot on a white paper, I will leave it at that. Anyways, the Church and the Pope had spoken about his beatification, the case is closed, St. Augustine.

  • Sweetjae

    I still give Blessed Pope JPII the benefit of the doubt about Maciel during the final hours of his Pontificate.

    For many of my fellow converts to the Faith, JPII will one day be proclaimed St. John Paul II the Great.

  • JabbaPapa

    Very true — though in some languages, it’s less a courtesy than the proper form of formal address ; though a language such as French actually differentiates (if necessary) between “Monseigneur” as an honorific, and “Monsignor” as being formally bestowed by the Pope ;-)

  • Sweetjae


  • Sweetjae

    Rock of Peter, a microstate? Rubbish nonsense :-(( Are you referring to Vatican City where the Bishop of Rome resides? :-((

  • Sweetjae

    Since i don’t have the command of English what i meant by “against” is, it’s not forbidden but at the same time nowhere found in the Canon Law. The tenure of the Pope depends on his DESIRE to continue for his entire life, incapacity for health reasons or thrown out by a General Council.

  • scary goat

     Good point….but I don’t think this will happen.  I think we are a bit “emotionally incontinent” at the moment because we are feeling a “void”.  When we have a new Pope that situation will be solved. 

  • scary goat

     Sorry, my question wasn’t clear.  I meant just after 0.55 actually but I gave that as the start of the section.  I meant where he says the NO is licit but he seems not so sure about its validity.  I don’t understand what he means by that.  I can see how you can have valid but not licit in various situations but I don’t see how you can have licit but (not valid?).  Thanks.

  • scary goat

     We have a couple of Monsignors around here who aren’t Bishops.

  • scary goat

     I give everybody the benefit of the doubt, including JPII.  I was just pointing out that support for his beatification is not unanimous for some reasons.

    ps.  I realise that English is not your first language so sometimes I give you the benefit of the doubt when your posts seem overly vicious…maybe you don’t realise how they sound to a native English speaker, but do you think you could be a bit less judgmental and a bit more charitable towards Mr. BC and SSPX?

    I remember a teacher I had at school said “People are rarely as good or as bad as we imagine them to be”.  It’s a nice way of saying things aren’t always black and white.

    As far as I can see, SSPX/ (some of) VII are a bit of a grey area.  Like you, I am fiercely loyal to the Pope, Magesterium and Church…and SSPX is a line I will not cross.  I do not feel myself to be knowledgeable enough to stick my neck out, and if in doubt, trust the Pope/Church.  I have worked bloody hard at reading (parts of) VII through tradition coloured lenses….and I agree…it can be done. I “liked” your recent posts on religious liberty btw.  But I have come up against one snag that I can’t get past.  There is one line of Nostra Aetate that is, at worst, factually wrong, at best  a highly skewed (misinformed) fact is misrepresented and highly misleading.  It flags up a warning to me that human error came into play. 

    I am watching the “politics” of it all.  I think it was Churchill who once said “We are advancing in a backwards direction”.  That gives me hope that there will come a time when the Vatican and SSPX will find enough common ground for progress to be made.  Let’s watch the new Pope and see what happens before being too quick to condemn those with SSPX sympathies.

  • Daveofthenewcity

    Thank you for your conciliatory words, but ‘a tad too bullish’ is rather an understatement when it comes to Mr Oddie.

    “Frankly, I don’t give a fig about anything Rowan Williams says, as such;
    for a most amazing quantity of utter drivel issues forth from the midst
    of that ghastly beard of his”

    I will be so pleased if the new pope has a nice beard.

  • Jonathan West

    I think the problem of authority is not much affected by the fact that Ratzinger remains alive. He shows every sign of not wanting to make life difficult for his successor, and provided that he avoids making any public utterances on organizational, moral or doctrinal issues the field will be clear for his successor.

    The problems of authority it seems to me are threefold.

    1. There will be those in the church who refuse to fully accept the authority of the new Pope while Ratzinger remains alive, mistakenly confusing tradition with canon law.

    2. There will be those in the church who refuse to fully accept the authority of the new Pope because they have doctrinal differences with him.

    3. There will be those outside (and inside) the church who consider that the moral authority of the church as a whole (and by extension the new Pope) has been fatally undermined by the clerical abuse scandal.

    Problem 1 will go away of its own accord in time – people will get used to the situation and Ratzinger will die in due course.

    Problem 2 is probably insoluble, unless and until an objective and agreed means is discovered by which religious disputes can be resolved. I’m not holding my breath waiting for this.

    Solving problem 3 will require that the new pope, whoever he is, makes the reform of the church’s stance on this issue an urgent priority. A good start would be the case of Father Laurence Soper, former Abbot of Ealing, against whom there is a European Arrest Warrant for alleged sex crimes against pupils of St Benedict’s School, and who was last seen in Rome leaving Collegio Sant’Anselmo supposedly to return to the UK to attend a police bail appointment. If at all possible, the new Pope should see to it that he is found, handed over to the police and returned to the UK to face justice for his alleged crimes.

  • JabbaPapa

    I think the problem of authority is not much affected by the fact that Ratzinger remains alive

    The non-problem of authority is completely unaffected by your own personal modernist ramblings. Nor is it affected by your aggressively distasteful and anti-catholic decision to refer to our Holy Father as “Ratzinger”.

    1) You personally refuse to accept the doctrinal Authority of our One True Holy Church of Christ ; your wafflings about Papal Authority “versus” (cough !!!) the Tradition and versus (cough !!!) the Canon Law are therefore not just mistaken and irrelevant — they are uncatholic.

    2) is only “insoluble” for open heretics such as yourself. Please do not confuse your heretical beliefs with the eternal teachings of Catholic Christianity

    3) People who believe such things belong to this world only, and they are very far from the Kingdom of God

    What you are imagining concerning Soper would essentially constitute reinstating the Holy Inquisition — is that REALLY what you want ???!!??

    If so, then one could only conclude that your reasons for this desire must be rather diabolically fifth columnist…

  • JabbaPapa

    because we are feeling a “void”

    Speak for yourself — I’m personally feeling a plenitude :-)

  • JabbaPapa

    +Fellay’s opinions about the Novus Ordo Mass are explicitly and openly heretical, given that he has described it, in the most formal manner available to him (during an ex cathedra homily), as being “evil”.

    IMO, any orthodox Catholic is obliged to consider +Fellay as having automatically excommunicated himself latae sententiae by reason of this formal and objective statement of a heresy ; and must therefore consider any liturgies that he performs without any prior public Act of forgiveness from the Holy Father or the relevant Dicasteries of the Holy See as being invalid and illicit.

    This would technically extend to anyone having partaken of the bread at that liturgy (NOT a Mass — no liturgy where the Mass itself is blasphemed against is neither valid nor licit), but nevertheless to nobody else in the SSPX or among the SSPX supporters, except for those having willfully repeated this teaching to others since it was provided by +Fellay.

    Whatever else, ALL of +Fellay’s personal opinions concerning the Novus Ordo Mass are to be completely and utterly rejected by any and all orthodox Catholics, by reason of that bishop’s personal heterodoxy.

  • JabbaPapa

    Are you referring to Vatican City

    Obviously — and he does not just “reside” there, the Holy Father is its Head of State …