The abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, an event the magnitude of which is difficult to exaggerate, returned to the news last week with the release of two letters sent in November 2017 from the Pope Emeritus to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller. The abdication, never adequately explained, now is acknowledged as causing pain and anger in the Church, besmirching the assessment of Benedict’s pontificate.

It has never been in reasonable doubt that Benedict in fact did resign and that the See of Peter did become vacant, subsequently to be filled by Pope Francis. But whether such a grave decision, to abdicate the office of universal pastor, was itself reasonable, was certainly in doubt.

At the time, many commentators – this one included – were eager to give Benedict the benefit of any doubt. Surely for such a decision to be taken, Benedict would have persuasive reasons. At the time, though, the Holy Father only offered the serenity of his conscience that it was the correct decision due his diminishing strength. Yet diminishing strength is inevitable for all men before they die, so it seemed that diminishing strength, rather than evident incapacity, was a weak basis on which to base the renunciation of the papal office.

In 2016, Benedict explained his thinking in The Last Testament, an interview book with Peter Seewald. The explanation offered was even less satisfactory. Benedict’s incapacity for further transoceanic travel – apparently indicated by the papal physician – meant that he could not attend World Youth Day in Rio in 2013. Hence he resigned. Far from being persuasive, it seemed utterly incommensurate to the gravity of the act.

The Brandmüller letters underscore that gravity. In the fall of 2017, Cardinal Brandmüller, former president of the Pontifical Commission for Historical Sciences, publicly stated that the figure of “pope emeritus” was a complete invention, having no precedent whatsoever in the life of the Church.

“Of course, you know very well that popes have retired, even if very rarely,” Benedict wrote to Brandmüller on November 9, 2017, upbraiding his friend. “What were they afterwards? Pope Emeritus? Or what instead?”

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