The recent announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will take the title “emeritus pope” on his retirement surely has his predecessors rolling over in their graves.
Traditionally, a change of Catholic leadership occurs with the death of one pope and the election of another. The cardinals, who normally elect the pope for life, proceed with a combination of human negotiation and divine inspiration. However, Benedict’s decision to resign and take his new title has complicated the system of clean breaks that the papacy has enjoyed.
Since 1800, there have been 15 popes, who were between the ages of 54 to 78 at their election. These popes died between the ages of 65 and 93. Benedict XVI is at the elderly end of this spectrum. He became pope at 78 and resigned at 85. While cardinals 80 and older are ineligible to vote in conclave and often receive a dispensation from an appointment as bishop, reducing their workload and travel responsibilities, the pope has no such reprieve.
According to the Vatican, Benedict’s decision to resign was chiefly for health reasons – exhaustion coupled with poor hearing and blindness in one eye. Although the desire to retire is understandable, this is almost unprecedented in the papacy — and for good reason.
Resignation is a human choice and avoids the divine role in leadership changes. The only other resignations in papal history reflect organizational needs rather than declining health. In 1294, the ineffectual Pope Celestine V resigned to general relief in order to return to life as a hermit. In 1415, Pope Gregory XII resigned in order to end the Great Schism that prompted three rival popes.
Following both resignations there were fears that each man might become a rival to his legitimate successor. Whereas Celestine tried unsuccessfully to return to his life as a hermit, Gregory lived as a cardinal in seaside retirement. Both men died within three years of their retirement, eliminating this prospect.
However, unlike Celestine and Gregory, Benedict XVI has decided not to return either to the cardinalate or the priesthood. By adopting a clearly subordinate title (cardinal or priest) he would have distanced himself from the papacy and cleared the way for his replacement. Instead, he has created a new category of emeritus pope within the ancient Catholic hierarchy.
Although the resignation will end his jurisdiction as pope, the decision to retain a papal title and white dress offer a public reminder of his former role. Traditionally, the pope’s white robes reflect his role as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and recall the purity of Jesus. While the choice of title and dress might seem trifling, the uniforms of Catholic leaders (priests, bishops, cardinals) establish clear grades of authority and responsibility. The position of emeritus pope in this hierarchy is unclear.
Benedict’s decision to retain the look of the papacy in retirement suggests the Italian theologian Enrico Maria Radaelli might be right. While canon law, the legal code of the Catholic Church, accepts papal resignations, Radaelli argues the pope’s vocation is derived from God. Once accepted, the pope’s vocation cannot be abandoned. Benedict must remain pope until his death. The election of a successor to a retired pope creates a theological dilemma that Radaelli calls an antipope.
On his election in 2005, many observers identified Benedict’s theological conservatism to be a key part of his appeal to the College of Cardinals. Ironically, the same observers now cite him as revolutionary — perhaps even modern — in his desire to retire.