Will Benedict Still Be ‘Pope’?

Bishop Paprocki mines canon law for guidance on what to call the Holy Father after Feb. 28 and how to define his landmark decision to step down.

(photo: Wikipedia)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — After Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign, a debate quickly ensued about the proper terminology for describing the Pope’s stunning decision: Had he “abdicated,” resigned or “renounced” his office?  And what would he be called after he took up his new life of prayer and study?

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., a canon lawyer, has entered the discussion, offering the fruit of his analysis regarding the proper canonical term for the Pope’s decision and the likely title and name he will use after his resignation.

Such matters are not entirely settled because of the singular nature of this landmark decision: “A Pope has not left office alive for almost 600 years,” acknowledged Bishop Paprocki in a statement that offered his “canonical reflections on terminology.”

The remarks were sent to a canon-law listserve, and the bishop subsequently agreed to allow the Register to publish his reflections.

“What seems to have been overlooked so far in these discussions is that the word 'pope' does not appear in the Code of Canon Law,” wrote the bishop.

Instead, Canon 331, which defines the office held by the pope, provides “several titles for the office held by a pope: 'Bishop of Rome,' 'Successor of St. Peter,' 'Head of the College of Bishops,' 'Vicar of Christ' and 'Pastor of the Universal Church.' Other canons give us the title most commonly used for the Petrine office throughout the Code: ‘Roman Pontiff.’”

No surprise, then, wrote the bishop, that “Benedict did not use the word ‘Pope’ anywhere in his spoken announcement or letter of resignation.”

In his letter, Pope Benedict announced that he would step down from “the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on April 19, 2005, in such a way, that as from Feb. 28, 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter, will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff …”

The Pope signed his letter of resignation “BENEDICTUS PP. XVI,” and Bishop Paprocki noted that it “simply means that he is the sixteenth pope by the name ‘Benedict.’ That is a historical fact that will never change.”


Term of Endearment

Bishop Paprocki then suggested that Catholics should view the word “pope” as “an honorific, even a term of endearment (‘papa’ in Italian). It is not the title of an ecclesiastical office.”

Thus, just as Catholics continue to call a priest “Father,” even though “he has resigned from the office of pastor,” so Italians probably “will continue to call Pope Benedict Papa Benedetto even after he leaves office as the Bishop of Rome,” predicted the bishop, who lived in Rome for three and a half years while studying canon law.

“I don’t think people will have a hard time wrapping their minds around having a pope who is no longer the Roman pontiff, bishop of Rome, etc. Certainly, in direct address, one would never address him as anything but ‘Your Holiness.’”

That said, Bishop Paprocki added that it “would be best to know what Pope Benedict himself wants to be called after Feb. 28, and I hope he will tell us.”

While some experts have said that the Pope should be called “Cardinal Ratzinger” after he formally resigns, Bishop Paprocki did not think term seemed “correct.”

“If he had resigned before reaching the age of 80, after which a cardinal may no longer vote in a papal conclave, I do not think he would have, should have or could have donned a red cassock and entered the conclave in the Sistine Chapel to vote for his successor.

“Instead, at 8pm Rome time on Feb. 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI will have a new identity to which we will have to become accustomed: His Holiness, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, former Roman/supreme pontiff, bishop emeritus of Rome.”



Then there’s the problem of how to describe the Pope’s decision to resign from the Petrine office.

“The official English translation of the Code of Canon Law translates renuntiatio in Canon 332, §2 as 'resignation.' ('If it happens that the Roman pontiff resigns his of­fice, it is required for validity that the resigna­tion is made freely and properly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.')" 

Accordingly, Bishop Paprocki pointed to “resign” as “a more accurate translation in this context than ‘renounce’ and certainly not ‘abdicate’ (a term used by royalty when a monarch steps down from the throne).”

To those who find it “odd” that Pope Benedict resigned without actually “submitting that resignation to anyone,” Bishop Paprocki noted that the canon offers the following guidance on a “valid” resignation: The decision must be “made freely and properly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.”

But what to make of the fact that Pope Benedict himself used the term “renounce” in his Feb. 10 statement marking his unexpected decision?

Bishop Paprocki suggested that “‘renounce’ is a literal but not necessarily accurate translation of renuntiatio in this context.”

“Since the Pope wrote and spoke in Latin, it is a question of translation. Parallel passages in canon law regarding bishops and pastors stepping down from office use the word renuntiatio, but we never speak of a bishop sending in his letter of ‘renunciation’ when he turns 75 or a pastor ‘renouncing’ his office.”

Thus, in his view, “‘resignation’ is the proper translation of renuntiatio in this context.”

Bishop Paprocki said that his “humble” contribution to the debate provoked by Pope Benedict’s landmark decision may well be challenged by “more learned experts.” Indeed, the subject “could all become moot if the Holy Father tells us clearly his wishes.”

For now, the Springfield bishop will be praying “for Pope Benedict XVI during this time of transition and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the election of his successor.”

 Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.