Should Church law on papal resignations be changed? Professor Thomas Schüller, head of the canon law department at Münster University, thinks so. In a recent German television interview he argued that when a pope retires he ought no longer to wear white, but return to the red and black he wore as a cardinal and visibly give up the Ring of the Fisherman. Schüller also criticised the title “Pope Emeritus”, adopted by Benedict XVI after his resignation in 2013, saying that “it merely leads to confusion”.
Some may be tempted to dismiss Schüller’s thesis simply because it emanates from Germany. But misgivings about aspects of Benedict’s resignation are not limited to the progressive Catholic world. Last year St John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel said bluntly that “the decisions about these matters made in 2013 were mistaken”.
He wrote: “The former Benedict XVI ought to have reverted to being Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, or perhaps simply ‘Bishop Joseph’. And … he ought not to have kept even a modified form of the vesture proper to a pope.” Weigel, too, took issue with the term “Pope Emeritus”, arguing that a former pope is quite different to a diocesan bishop who takes the title “bishop emeritus” on his retirement. He argued that “One either holds the Office of Peter or one doesn’t.”
The highest ranking churchman to express such reservations publicly is probably Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation. In May he said that while he respected the title “Pope Emeritus”, he refused to use it, because theologically it “creates more problems rather than solving them”. He said that he preferred to wait for another, less problematic title for the retired pope.
How have Catholics in the pew received these decisions? It’s hard to say as there doesn’t appear to be any empirical data, even though Benedict XVI’s resignation was one of the most momentous Catholic events since Vatican II. Anecdotally, people seem to refer to the retired pope as “Benedict” rather than the Pope Emeritus. While the vast majority understood immediately that Benedict had fully renounced the Petrine office, a significant number seemed puzzled as to why he continued to wear white.
In Rome’s defence, Benedict’s resignation caught almost everyone off guard. Officials had less than a month to work out the details and no recent precedents to guide them. They wanted to ensure that the German pope was treated with the utmost dignity, even if he himself had apparently wanted to be known simply as “Father Benedict”. “I was too weak at that point to enforce it,” he told a German newspaper in 2014.
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