Assessing Benedict’s Resignation: The Questions That Remain

NEWS ANALYSIS: With similar papal resignations possible in the future, the Church will need to persist in addressing the unresolved issues related to his 2013 decision to step down as pope.

This picture taken on December 25, 2012 shows Pope Benedict XVI arriving to deliver his traditional Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI on February 11, 2013 announced he will resign on February 28.
This picture taken on December 25, 2012 shows Pope Benedict XVI arriving to deliver his traditional Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI on February 11, 2013 announced he will resign on February 28. (photo: Vicenzo Pinto / AFP/Getty)

Close to a decade after Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication from the Chair of Peter, shocking a gathering of the College of Cardinals into silence and even tears, the Catholic Church continues to grapple with a slew of unresolved questions provoked by his almost unprecedented decision.

Why, exactly, did he resign? Was he right to retain the vestiges of the papacy? Will the pope emeritus’ life in retirement, until he died on Dec. 31, become a model for his successors who also resign their office? For a Church that thinks in centuries, is it too soon to weigh this groundbreaking “modern precedent”?

At the time of his abdication, Benedict clearly stated that his failing health and capacities were the primary reasons for his decision.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he stated in Latin, the official language for Vatican proclamations, during the Feb. 11, 2013, consistory where the announcement was likened to a sudden clap of thunder. 

In his final official statement as pope, before a general audience on Feb. 27, 2013, he assured the tens of thousands of people gathered to hear him speak that even though he was stepping back from official duties, he would remain deeply connected to the See of St. Peter, changed forever by his election eight years earlier.

“The ‘always’ is also a ‘forever’ — there can no longer be a return to the private sphere,” he told the crowd. “My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this.” Added Benedict, “I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the Crucified Lord.” 

At the time, exactly what this would mean in terms of his specific status and his relationship with the pope who would succeed him wasn’t clear — ambiguities that disturbed more than a few Catholics, including even some of Benedict’s most ardent admirers. 


‘Courageous Act’

Yet, as the ensuing years revealed his increasing frailty as well as glimpses of his luminous ministry of prayer at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery on the grounds of the Vatican, over time most Church leaders and ordinary Catholics not only made their peace with his decision, but applauded it as an act of courage.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, acknowledged that many of the faithful were disappointed when Benedict resigned, but he praised the decision as a “courageous act that was done out of love.”

While his role changed, the pope emeritus’ life of prayer and writing allowed him to “continue to be a shepherd,” Archbishop Naumann told the Register. “He offered the suffering that comes from age and ill health as an intercessory prayer for the Church. That is powerful.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, remarked on Benedict’s failing health in his final years and endorsed the “modern precedent” he had set. 

“While a pope is in a sense a spiritual father figure or even a grandfather figure, the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church also has enormous responsibilities in overseeing a worldwide organization with over 1.3 billion adherents,” Bishop Paprocki said.

Benedict’s immediate predecessors did not even live to the age of when he retired, he noted. And while Pope Leo XIII, who died at age 93, “was the exception to the rule … we should not expect popes to continue to serve into their 90s.”

The Illinois bishop, who is an expert in canon law, also expressed approval of Benedict’s title of “Pope Emeritus” and the white cassock he continued to wear in his retirement. But most other experts consulted by the Register disagreed with these choices, and the “optics” of having two men dressed in white on the grounds of the Vatican has stirred some confusion and spawned a movie called The Two Popes, in which fictionalized versions of Benedict and Francis spar over their legacies and missteps.


How Was the Decision Made?

The concerns about these specific issues reflect an ongoing effort to obtain a more complete account of how Benedict came to his decision and who advised him. 

George Weigel is among those who believe that Benedict would have benefited from better counsel as he pondered his abdication and laid the groundwork for his retirement.

Back in 2017, Weigel expressed frustration that Last Testament, a book-length collaboration between the pope emeritus and his longtime biographer Peter Seewald, did not provide sufficient context for Benedict’s decision-making process.

“[G]iven the post-Benedict turbulence in the Church, which begins to resemble the chaos of the post-conciliar 1970s that Ratzinger rightly deplored (and did much to repair), it would have been useful to get some clearer answers from Last Testament about the months that led up to the papal transition of 2013 — and the reasons why things had come to such a state of affairs before Benedict XVI took the decision to step down,” said Weigel.

A soon-to-be-released memoir penned by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime personal secretary — titled Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI — will likely provide additional information on Benedict’s final months in office, though the account is expected to be challenged by other Vatican insiders. 

For now, Weigel remains concerned about what “seems to have been a lack of broad consultation among knowledgeable and prudent people about a papal abdication and how it should be carried out,” as he explained in an email message to the Register after Benedict’s death.


The ‘Pope Emeritus’ Title

Weigel also questioned the title Benedict assumed after he stepped down, as well as his choice of liturgical garments and his decision to live afterward on the grounds of the Vatican. “I continue to think that the title ‘Pope Emeritus’ is mistaken (‘Bishop of Rome Emeritus’ would have been better); that the vesture was wrong, because in a visual age it creates the illusion of ‘two popes’; and that the place of residence was not well-chosen (although that may have been for security reasons).”

The new title for the retired pope was initially announced by the Vatican Press Office, which explained that he would be called “His Holiness Benedict XVI,” as well as “Pope Emeritus or Roman Pontiff Emeritus.” However, in a 2014 interview published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Benedict revealed that when he first stepped down he wanted to be called “Father Benedict” but “was too weak at that point to enforce it.” 

Whatever its origins, the title was widely adopted, though Pope Francis has signaled his intention, should he resign himself, of adopting instead the title “Bishop Emeritus of Rome.” 

Timothy O’Malley, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, expressed similar reservations about the title. 

At the same time, O’Malley suggested that Benedict’s more crucial decision — his abdication — was in keeping with his theological views and thus should not stir unwarranted speculation.

“If you had paid attention to Ratzinger’s earlier writings on the papacy, it’s clear that he did not view it as a monarchical but primarily a pastoral role whose purpose is to make possible the unity of the Church,” said O’Malley.

“Based on the current approach to the papacy, one that is perhaps too closely connected to the public fame of the pontiff, Benedict’s decision is attuned to post-conciliar teaching around the papacy.”

According to this view, “the Pope is elected to exercise a public duty or office. If one cannot exercise that duty or office, resignation makes sense for the good of the Church.” 


New Role

That said, O’Malley also gave Benedict high marks for conducting himself appropriately in his newly created role.

“He lived as a monk,” was only “occasionally heard in the public square,” and “wholeheartedly prayed for and supported Pope Francis.”

In contrast, Msgr. Kevin Irwin, dean emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that Benedict still said too much. 

And indeed, media commentators flagged a number of episodes that exposed the tensions created by his presence at the Vatican. In 2020, for example, the pope emeritus and Cardinal Robert Sarah, then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, co-wrote a book on priestly ministry that was criticized as an unwarranted attempt to influence the outcome of the Amazonian synod, which had pressed for married priests as a solution to a regional crisis. 

But if Francis’ supporters were miffed by the book, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, applauded its publication, noting that Pope Francis ultimately retained Church discipline.

“[P]recisely because there is confusion in the Church, a Pope Emeritus, like every bishop and cardinal as long as he has breath and is of sound mind, must fulfill his duty as Successor of the Apostles to defend the sound tradition of the Church,” Cardinal Zen stated in a Jan. 3 post on his personal website.

But even as Benedict and his successor often expressed their mutual respect and affection, the former’s presence led reporters to use him as an appealing foil to Francis’ starkly different priorities and tone.

“The retired pope,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “was a living symbol, depending on one’s point of view, of an intolerant and punitive religiosity or of stalwart fidelity amid disorienting change.”


Addressing Future Retirements

Church leaders in the U.S. contacted by the Register generally approved of Benedict’s response to these daunting challenges. 

Yet they remained cautious about adopting proposals that sought to formalize a process of evaluating the fitness of an aging pope or set strict guidelines for how they would conduct their retirement.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, an experienced canonist, emphasized a central act of the papal abdication that was not in dispute.

“To be valid, the pope has to freely resign,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “Benedict was clear about that. It was his free choice.”

But he also noted the particular difficulties that the German pope had faced, including a series of painful scandals involving trusted aides. 

And for this reason, the San Francisco archbishop was not eager to see additional protocols adopted for a papal resignation.

“If it happens again, it probably would be good to have some [formal] provisions in response to the pope’s failing health,” he said. “But I am not sure how to put them into place without the pope’s enemies manipulating them to get him out of office.”

Archbishop Naumann praised the pope emeritus’ deference to his successor. He also saw clear parallels between the sometimes complex relationship of the pope emeritus and Pope Francis and his own future status as a bishop emeritus living possibly in close proximity to his successor. When a priest or bishop retires, “they continue their ministerial role in many ways, but they don’t clutch onto pastoral responsibilities,” he observed, noting the distinction between the immutability of sacred orders, along with his role as a successor to the apostles, and ecclesial governance.

And, yet, the Kansas City archbishop was not prepared at this time to back specific retirement protocols for Francis and his successors.

“Whether future popes follow” Benedict’s example, he said, “should be based on their own discernment.”

In the months and years ahead, the Church will likely establish greater clarity on many of these specific questions, even as it confronts more complex aspects of Benedict’s groundbreaking decision that will emerge over time. 

Some theologians and commentators have already suggested that the doctrinal turmoil in the Church that has followed his abdication is advancing the purification of the Church — a topic he often addressed as prefect and pope. 

Others, who point to his ministry of prayer as a radical response both to a world that prizes power and to a Church that must continually renew its encounter with the Event and the person, give the concluding word to Benedict himself.

As he put it in Deus Caritas Est, the ultimate authority belongs to the Lord, “who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”