Brandmüller: “The Resignation of the Pope Is Possible, But May It Never Happen Again”
The German cardinal, an authoritative historian of Christianity, weighs in on the ever more incandescent question of the resignation of Benedict XVI. Which in his judgment has not been good for the Church
by Sandro Magister
ROME, July 18, 2016 – The dispute, ever more fiery, over the absolute innovation of “two popes” in being at the same time, one reigning and one “emeritus,” the former “active” and the latter “contemplative,” now has a new contender of absolute prominence, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who has taken the field with an article in the authoritative online juridical journal “Statoechiese.it”:
Brandmüller, 87, a German, is an authority on the subject. He was for many years a tenured professor of Church history at the university of Augsburg. At the Vatican he headed the pontifical committee for historical sciences from 1998 to 2009. And he was made a cardinal by Benedict XVI in 2010.
He was one of the most resolute supporters of Joseph Ratzinger’s pontificate. But he did not take his resignation of the papacy well. It is his conviction, in fact, that such resignations are possible, but not all of them are morally licit, meaning directed to the “bonum commune” of the Church.
Much less does Brandmüller accept that the post-resignation should take the form that it is assuming today with the entirely unprecedented figure of a “pope emeritus,” with the very grave risks, including that of schism, which in his judgment it entails.
In his article, Brandmüller does not even use the formula of “pope emeritus.” On the contrary, he calls “necessary and urgent a legislation that would define and regulate” the status of one who has been pope.
Reproduced below almost in its entirety is the fifth and final part of the cardinal’s article, with five proposals for the regulation of the figure of the ex-pope.
A figure – as will be seen – radically different from the one that is taking shape today, especially after the explosive presentation made last May 21 at the Pontifical Gregorian University by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Ratzinger’s secretary:
And with all the more reason is Brandmüller very far from sharing the enigmatic definition of “pontificate of exception” (Ausnahmepontifikat) that Gänswein has applied to that of Benedict XVI precisely by virtue of his resignation, with a formula that refers to the ideas of Carl Schmitt on the “state of exception” as a suspension of the ordinary rules of governance and as innovation of these at the exclusive initiative of the sovereign, in this case the successor of Peter.
See in this regard the following two commentaries by the canonist Guido Ferro Canale and the vaticanista Aldo Maria Valli:
Pope Francis as well, responding to a journalist during the return flight from Armenia on June 26, demonstrated that he rejected the idea of “almost a shared ministry” between the two popes. On the contrary, he claimed the exercise of primacy for himself alone; he remarked on “the obedience” promised by the pope emeritus to his successor; and he did not hold back from picking up and spreading even on his part the “gossip” according to which “some people have gone [to Ratzinger] to complain about ‘this new pope…’ and he has sent them packing”:
And then, in an interview with the Argentine newspaper “la Nación” of July 3, he asserted that the abdication of Benedict XVI “had nothing to do with anything personal,” in apparent contrast with what Benedict himself said in his act of resignation, which he justified with his loss of strength:
The question, in short, is more incandescent than ever.
The fact is that at the end of his essay, Cardinal Brandmüller’s conclusion is peremptory: “The resignation of the pope is possible, and it has been done. But it is to be hoped that it may never happen again.”
A law is needed to define the status of the ex-pope
by Walter Brandmüller
A future juridical regulation of the papal resignation [. . .] is all the more difficult in that the figure of a pope emeritus is extraneous to the whole canonistic-theological tradition.
The resignation of the pope is possible (can. 332 § 2). That does not mean it is also certain to be morally licit. Liceity requires objective institutional reasons, directed to the “bonum commune Ecclesiae,” not personal reasons. One example of resignation is that of Gregory XII, made in 1415 to put an end to the schism. Pius VII and Pius XII also prepared bulls of resignation in case of imprisonment by Napoleon or Hitler.
From the pastoral point of view, however, it seems particularly urgent to combat the error – widely diffused in the situation created with the resignation of Benedict XVI – of maintaining that, through the resignation, the ministry of successor of Peter is stripped of its unique and sacred character and put on the same level as temporary democratic functions.
Today there is an urgent danger that this secular-political understanding of the papacy could lead to the point that from then on a pope could be issued, as are the occupants of secular positions, requests to resign when the person of the pope or his exercise of the office may meet with opposition.
Intense reflection is required on what conventions of language and/or symbolic gestures etc. may be necessary to address the evident dangers and for the sake of Church unity. Perhaps it would not be useless to refer in some form to this particular point in a future legislative text.
As has already been said, the resignation of a pope presupposes – and at the same time creates – a very dangerous ecclesial situation. At this moment there is no lack of persons or groups that follow the retired pope and that, dissatisfied with what has happened, could threaten the unity of the Church and even provoke a schism. It seems, therefore, that a future juridical regulation of the papal resignation might not exclude this perspective.
In any case, in the precarious situation of a papal resignation, the choice of the “via tutior” is necessary. Leaving the substantial “lacuna legis” unresolved, however, means nothing other than increasing the uncertainties at a dangerous moment of vital importance for the Church.
The first necessity is the integration of can. 332 § 2, which establishes only that the pope’s resignation of office “libere fiat et rite manifestetur.” The reference – an obvious one – to canons 185 and 186 that generally regulate the resignation of an ecclesiastical office is not suited for the exceptional case of the resignation of the pope. Moreover, the simple declaration of free resignation on the part of the person in question is not enough, because depending on the circumstances that statement could easily be forced, and the resignation therefore be invalid.
Such situations could lead to a schism. It is therefore indispensable to establish the procedure for certifying the effective freedom of the act. It is not enough to say that the act is valid until the contrary is proven because – since the pope is involved here – the resignation must be followed immediately by the election of the successor. If, in this case, after the election there should emerge evidence of the lack of freedom in the resignation, the consequences would be disastrous. The freedom of the act of resignation would have to be confirmed, for example, by a declaration of the heads of the three orders of cardinals.
In fact, in this context there also arises the question of the participation of the college of cardinals in the papal resignation. Already in the case of Saint Celestine V the canonists were discussing this problem. [. . .] The very decree “Quoniam” of Boniface VIII stresses the role of the cardinals in the resignation of the pope, emphasizing that Celestine made the decision to resign “deliberatione habita cum suis fratribus cardinalibus… de nostro et ipsorum omnium concordi consilio et assensu.”
This role of the cardinals finds part of its foundation even in the practice of the popes, who since the eleventh century in many important documents used the formula “de fratrum nostrorum consilio.” To this would correspond the practice of having the cardinals sign the relative documents “qui actui interfuerunt.” Even today – for example – before canonizing saints the individual cardinals are invited to express their votes in this regard.
Saint John Paul II himself instead spoke even – something that is problematic, or rather impossible – of submitting a potential resignation to the judgment of the cardinals. Certainly in the case of a potential resignation, the proposal of a consultation – in a form to be established – could not be a “conditio sine qua non” for the validity of the act of the pontiff. But even if this were a matter of a venerable custom or practice, it could not be easily overlooked.
Because of all of this, complementary legislation is urgently required to define and regulate:
1. The status of the ex-pope. In history it is possible to find, if not precisely precedents, then analogous cases for a solution. The antipopes John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa) and Felix V (Amedeo di Savoia) after their reconciliation were immediately made cardinals. Analogously, after his resignation an ex-pope could be made a cardinal immediately, but certainly without active or passive electoral rights.
2. The title of the resigner must also be defined. To avoid the appearance of the existence of two popes, it seems appropriate for him to take his family name back. His clothing would be regulated under the same profile.
3. It is also of no little importance to consider the housing and wherewithal to be provided for the resigner.
4. One particular problem is the regulation of his possible social and media contacts, in such a way that his personal dignity be respected on the one hand while one the other every threat to Church unity be excluded.
5. Ultimately there would also need to be a ceremony for the deceased resigner that could not be the one provided for a pope.
These would be the points to be clarified “de lege ferenda.”
There would need to be, in any case, an extensive theological and canonistic vision of the Petrine ministry capable of prompting within the faithful a true veneration of the ministry and person of the supreme pontiff and successor of the apostle Saint Peter, motivated by authentic faith.
After all, revisiting the aforementioned judgment: the resignation of the pope is possible, and it has been done. But it is to be hoped that it may never happen again.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.