A “Pontificate of Exception.” The Mystery of Pope Benedict
Against the Antichrists who are undermining the Church. The theories of the political philosopher Carl Schmitt applied to the pontificate of Joseph Ratzinger and to his resignation
by Sandro Magister
ROME, July 26, 2016 – The biting criticism of the resignation of Benedict XVI formulated a few days ago by cardinal and Church historian Walter Brandmüller has brought out into the open the risks of the “terra incognita” into which the papacy has slid after February 11, 2013, all the more so with the imposition of the unprecedented and enigmatic figure of the “pope emeritus” beside that of the reigning pope:
> Brandmüller: “The Resignation of the Pope Is Possible, But May It Never Happen Again”
What provoked the cardinal to come out into the open were above all the staggering statements of Archbishop Georg Gänswein made on May 20 in the aula magna of the Pontifical Gregorian University, during the presentation of a book by the historian Roberto Regoli on the pontificate of Benedict XVI:
> Benedetto XVI, la fine del vecchio, l’inizio del nuovo. L’analisi di Georg Gänswein
Gänswein – with the weight of one who is in the most intimate contact with the “pope emeritus” in that he is his secretary – had said that Joseph Ratzinger “has by no means abandoned the office of Peter,” but on the contrary has made it “an expanded ministry, with an active member and a contemplative member,” in “a collegial and synodal dimension, almost a shared ministry.”
But that’s not all. The resignation of Benedict XVI, in the judgment of his trusted secretary, also marked a revolution for this other reason:
“As of February 11, 2013, the papal ministry is no longer what it was before. It is and remains the foundation of the Catholic Church; and nonetheless it is a foundation that Benedict XVI has profoundly and lastingly transformed in his pontificate of exception (Ausnahmepontifikat).”
The formula, emphasized by Gänswein with the use of the German word, is not accidental. It contains a transparent reference to the “state of exception” theorized by one of the greatest and most talked-about political philosophers of the twentieth century, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).
According to this theory, a “state of exception” is the dramatic hour of history in which the ordinary rules are suspended and the sovereign imposes new rules on his own.
Surprisingly, however, this description of “pontificate of exception” as applied to the pontificate of Benedict XVI precisely by virtue of his resignation has not yet received the attention it deserves, nor has it raised particular controversies.
But it is precisely this that is the focus of an analysis by Guido Ferro Canale, a brilliant young canonist. With an expertise and an acuteness that are out of the ordinary.
His contribution has already appeared in Italian on the blog Settimo Cielo. But now it is offered here in English, French, and Spanish, to a worldwide readership, as it rightly should be.
A word to the wise. Where Gänswein, citing the book by Regoli, refers to the “group of St. Gallen” and its role in the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, the reference is to the cardinals who used to gather periodically in the Swiss city of St. Gallen and who first opposed to the election of Ratzinger and then supported the election of Bergoglio.
The group included the cardinals Carlo Maria Martini, Basil Hume, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Achille Silvestrini, Karl Lehmann, Walter Kasper, and Godfried Danneels, the last two of these being particularly dear to Pope Francis, in spite of the fact that Danneels was proven to have attempted in 2010 a cover-up of the sexual offenses of the then-bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, against his young nephew.
The resignation of Benedict XVI and the shadow of Carl Schmitt
by Guido Ferro Canale
The statement on May 20 by Archbishop Georg Gänswein on the resignation of Benedict XVI from the pontificate has stirred up both noise and reflection, above all because it seemed to offer support for the theory of the “two popes.” Without entering into the debate over this aspect, or over the problematic distinction between the active and passive exercise of the Petrine ministry, I would like to draw attention to a different point of the statement of Joseph Ratzinger’s secretary, the implications of which seem worthy of elaboration.
Allow me to begin by pointing out, in the first place, the title selected by the illustrious author for his speech: “Benedict XVI, the end of the old, the beginning of the new.”
He justifies this from the outset, stating that Ratzinger “has embodied the richness of the Catholic tradition as no one else; and that – at the same time – he was so audacious as to open the door to a new phase, through that historical turning point which five years ago no one could have imagined.”
In other words: Gänswein does not see the “beginning of the new” in any of Benedict XVI’s many acts of governance or magisterium, but precisely in his resignation and in the unprecedented situation that it creates.
A situation that he does not describe only in terms of the dichotomy between active and contemplative exercise of the ministry. He also uses – although in a much less evident way – another category: the state of exception.
He introduces this in an oblique manner, as if referring to the opinion of another: “Many continue to perceive this new situation even today as a sort of state of exception intended by Heaven.”
Nonetheless, however, he makes it his own, as if extending it to the whole Ratzinger pontificate:
“As of February 2013, the papal ministry is no longer what it was before. It is and remains the foundation of the Catholic Church; and nonetheless it is a foundation that Benedict XVI has profoundly and lastingly transformed in his pontificate of exception (Ausnahmepontifikat), with respect to which the sober Cardinal Sodano, reacting with immediacy and simplicity right after the surprising declaration of resignation, profoundly moved and almost in the grip of dismay, had exclaimed that the news had resounded among the gathered cardinals ‘like lightning from a clear blue sky’.”
The analysis seems fairly clear: that of Benedict XVI becomes a “pontificate of exception” precisely by virtue of the resignation and at the moment of the resignation.
But why does Gänswein present the expression – in a speech he gave in Italian – also in German, as “Ausnahmepontifikat”?
In Italian, “pontificate of exception” simply sounds like “out of the ordinary.” But the reference to his mother tongue makes it clear that Gänswein has no such banality in mind, but rather the category of “state of exception” (Ausnahmezustand).
A category that any German with an average education immediately associates with the figure and thought of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).
“The sovereign is the one who decides on the state of exception. [. . .] Here by state of exception must be understood a general concept of the doctrine of the state, and not any sort of emergency ordinance or state of siege. [. . .] In fact, not every unusual exercise of authority, not every emergency measure or police ordinance is in itself a situation of exception: to this there pertains instead an authority that is unlimited in line of principle, meaning the suspension of the entire established order. If such a situation is in place, then it is clear that the state continues to exist while the rule of law declines” (C. Schmitt, “Teologia politica”, in Id., “Le categorie del politico”, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1972, pp. 34 and 38-9).
“Aus-nahme” literally means “out-law.” A state of things that cannot be regulated a priori and therefore, if it comes about, requires the suspension of the entire juridical order.
An “Ausnahmepontifikat,” therefore, would be a pontificate that suspends in some way the ordinary rules of functioning of the Petrine ministry, or, as Gänswein says, “renews” the office itself.
And, if the analogy fits, this suspension would be justified, or rather imposed, by an emergency impossible to address otherwise.
In another essay, “The guardian of the constitution,” Schmitt glimpses the power to decide on the case of exception in the president of the Weimar republic, and maintains that it is instrumental for the protection of the constitution. Perhaps this aspect of Schmittian thought is not pertinent, but it certainly gives the idea of the gravity of the crisis required by a state of exception.
Is it possible, then, that a concept with such implications should have been used frivolously, in an imprecise way, perhaps only in order to allude to the difficulty of framing the situation created with the resignation according to the ordinary rules and concepts?
It does not seem possible to me, for three reasons.
1) Inaccuracy of language is not to be presumed, for all the more reason since this is one of the best-known concepts of a scholar who, at least in Germany, is known “lippis et tonsoribus,” even to purblind and barber.
2) The emphasis, evident right from the title, on the effects and scope of the resignation, which is certainly not considered a possibility of rare occurrence but is tranquilly anticipated by the code of canon law (one should consider that it is called, among other things, “a thoroughly pondered step of millennial implications”);
3) The possible references to the critical concrete situation that it seems to me can be glimpsed in the remarks of Gänswein.
One should consider what he says about the election of Benedict XVI “following a dramatic struggle”:
“It was certainly the result even of a clash, the key to which had been furnished by Ratzinger himself as cardinal dean, in the historic homily of April 18, 2005 at Saint Peter’s; and precisely there where to ‘a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires’ he had opposed another measure: ‘the Son of God, the true man. as ‘the measure of true humanism’.”
A clash where, if not in conclave, in the heart of the Church?
Gänswein also indicates the protagonists of the clash, in the wake of the book by Roberto Regoli, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, on the pontificate of Benedict XVI. And it is not a mystery for anyone, by now, that the cardinals of the “group of St. Gallen” went back into action in 2013.
How many of the difficulties of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, in fact, can be explained precisely with this clash, perhaps underground but incessant, between those who remain faithful to the evangelical image of the “salt of the earth” and those who would like to prostitute the Bride of the Lamb to the dictatorship of relativism? This clash, which is not just a power struggle, but if anything a supernatural struggle for souls, is the main reason why those on the one side have loved Benedict XVI and those on the other have hated him.
And we continue with the analysis made by Gänswein:
“In the Sistine Chapel I witnessed that Ratzinger experienced the election as pope as a ‘true shock’ and felt ‘uneasiness,’ and that he felt ‘as if dizzy spells were coming on’ as soon as he understood that ‘the axe’ of the election would fall upon him. I am not unveiling any secrets here, because it was Benedict XVI himself who confessed all of this publicly on the occasion of the first audience granted to pilgrims from Germany. And so it comes as no surprise that Benedict XVI was the first pope who immediately after his election asked the faithful to pray for him, another fact of which the book by Roberto Regoli reminds us.”
But more than the “above all I entrust myself to your prayers” pronounced immediately after the election, do we not perhaps recall the dramatic invitation at the Mass for the beginning of the Petrine ministry: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves”? In the parable of the Gospel the bad shepherd does not run away out of fear. He runs away because “he is a hireling, and the sheep do not matter to him.”
I believe, therefore, that Benedict XVI was confessing a concrete fear. And that he was thinking of very concrete wolves. I also think that this explains the shock, uneasiness, and dizziness.
And perhaps another reference can be found in Gänswein’s reference to a rather frequent criticism:
“Regoli does not omit the accusation of a lack of understanding of men that was often lodged against the brilliant theologian in the garments of the Fisherman; capable of evaluating difficult texts and books in a brilliant way and who in spite of this confided to Peter Seewald how difficult he found it to make decisions about persons, because ‘no one can read into the heart of the other.’ How true that is!”
When the wolves are disguised as lambs, or as shepherds, and when their thoughts are not printed on paper and subject to refined theological analysis, how can they be unmasked? How can one know whom to trust, and to whom to entrust part of the authority over the flock of the Lord? Because of this, it seems to me that even the phrase “Benedict XVI was aware that he was losing the strength necessary for the most burdensome office” takes on a meaning that is less neutral and, perhaps, more sinister. The office would be most burdensome not because of the multiplicity of external obligations, which are certainly tiring, but because of the exhausting internal combat. So exhausting that, no longer feeling oneself capable of enduring it. . .
Perhaps I am reading too much into this text. Perhaps Gänswein loves colorful images or soundbites. Certainly there will be some who will not fail to say so. And I am the first to admit that the taste for analysis can get me carried away.
But if I may be mistaken in the reconstruction of the concrete emergency, I do not believe it is possible to free the resignation from the shadow cast on it by that expression as heavy as a boulder: “Ausnahme.” I am not the one who has evoked the shadow of Carl Schmitt: I have limited myself to indicating the point at which Gänswein has made it visible, I would even dare to say palpable.
One question remains open, however: in what way, in what terms would the resignation, with the introduction of the “pope emeritus,” constitute an adequate reaction to the emergency?
One could think of the spiritual power of the example of detachment from power, or more simply of the fact that the army of Christ would have a new commander, no longer worn out by the struggle in question and able to lead it better. But these reasons apply to the resignation, not to the “emeritused.”
Perhaps one hint could emerge from Gänswein’s statement that Benedict XVI has “enriched” the papacy “with the ‘headquarters’ of his prayer and compassion set up in the Vatican gardens.”
Compassion – in this day and age it bears repeating – is not mercy. In ascetical or mystical theology, it is uniting oneself with the sufferings of Christ crucified, offering oneself for the sanctification of one’s neighbor.
A service of com-passion on the part of the pope is made necessary – in my judgment – only when the Church appears to be experiencing Good Friday in the first person. When there must reecho the most bitter words of Luke 22:53: “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.”
Correctly understood, with this I am not denouncing conspiracies or formulating accusations: the state of exception could very well be “intended by Heaven,” since the darkness would have no power at all without divine permission. And we know that there also exists a mysterious necessity of the “mystery of iniquity”: “It is necessary that he be taken out of the way who restrains it until now” (2 Thes 2:7). For all the more reason, therefore, does the plan of God include the lesser Antichrists and the hours of darkness.
I do not possess nor can I offer sure answers on the concrete causes of Benedict XVI’s resignation, nor on the theological or personal reasons that may have induced him to call himself “pope emeritus,” even less on the supernatural plans of Providence. But that today the Antichrists have been unleashed – above all those who should feed the flock of the Lord – seems to me incontestable.
So, however we may have arrived here, this is certainly a time of com-passion.
It is a time to offer Christian hope in opposition to the “religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth,” to the “pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 675).
It is a time to hasten with Christian suffering, the most potent spiritual weapon that has been given us to use: the moment in which God will intervene, in the way known to him “ab aeterno,” to reestablish truth, law, and justice.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.