Papal Good Idea, Bad Idea

Pope Benedict XVIThe announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation (or retirement or abdication and so on) has been heralded as a promising move of epic proportions for the church. Indeed, I agree wholeheartedly that this is likely to be, as the historical theologian Joseph Komonchak and others have asserted, what Benedict XVI is best known for in terms of the historical record of his papacy. There are, despite the “secular” media’s desire for scandal and political motivation, undertones of humility and courage that ground the pope’s decision. And this has been, I believe, a very good idea.

However, this is not to suggest that this decision and accompanying awkwardness of something not exercised in over six centuries is without its problematic actions. This week’s announcement that Benedict XVI, who will step down from his office as Bishop of Rome and Roman Pontiff tomorrow at 8:00pm Rome Time, has selected to be called “Roman Pontiff Emeritus” or “Pope Emeritus,” continue to wear his distinctive white cassock (distinctive, of course, unless you are a member of the Norbertine Order of the Canons Regular of  Prémontré), and bear the papal name “Benedict,” is really a “bad idea.”

This is a bad idea in large part because there cannot be two popes and, regardless of what Benedict XVI tomorrow wishes to be called, he and the rest of the world will know, at least intellectually, that he is not the pope. The term pope is problematic here because what the term pope really refers to is the Bishop of Rome who, by virtue of his primacy within the college of bishops, bears a number of other titles (Roman Pontiff, Servant of the Servants of God, [formerly] Patriarch of the West, etc.). The papacy is an office and not a person as my friend and theologian Brian Flanagan astutely reminded us a few weeks back.

If it walks like a pope, dresses like a pope, bears the same name as a pope, and has the term “pope” or “pontiff” in its title: it’s probably (going to be perceived to be) a POPE!  And hence the “bad idea.”

In principle this shouldn’t make a difference, but in our age of soundbites, constant media images, and minimal public attention span, what looks and sounds like a pope will be treated like a “second pope.” Benedict XVI, I think, should at least — in our visual age – look different from the pope in dress and appearance (and taking off your shoulder cape which, I should add from what I imagine my TOR and OFM Conv. friends can affirm, only gets in the way already. Try washing a dish or reaching for something in a cabinet with a shoulder-length cape always in your way. I think that is simply a pragmatic move, not all that symbolic).

It is quite likely that Benedict XVI in his decision to make the swearing of allegiance to the new pope by the College of Cardinals a more public event he has intended to make his participation in this action a definitive moment of acknowledgement about who the one and only Bishop of Rome or Pope really is. But I really don’t think it will be enough.

Time will tell and we shall see how this plays out. It is now just a little more than 24-hours until one of the most historic events of the second Christian millennia gets underway.

UPDATE: This is a short article on this topic well-worth reading from VaticanInsider.

Photo: File
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11 Responses to “Papal Good Idea, Bad Idea”

  1. I hate washing dishes whether I’m wearing a habit or dishes. A cape would just make it more unbearable! Good insights! However, I don’t think we will see much of him ever again. I think he will be taking the cloister of that monastery seriously.

  2. first dishes=jeans

  3. Another possible problem is if he lives in the Vatican. That may confuse matters even more.

  4. John Slattery Says:

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for this post! I’m not as convinced as you are about the “bad idea” nature of the decision. Referencing Brian Flanagan’s piece, I think it’s more a decision that moves in between the question of “office” or “person” of the Papacy. I think Benedict views the Papacy as a person, not an office…which is why he’s having such a hard time letting go of the Pope nomenclature. It’s like his way of pushing back against all those people who think he’s finally trying to ‘reform the Church’! In this sense, it’s neither a good or bad idea, but a statement that the Papacy is not just another office to hold…it does, in some ways, take hold of the person who inhabits the office…at least in the Holy Father’s mindset.

    Anyhow, thanks for the great food for thought!

  5. Really good points here. For Benedict, given his age, it might not matter a whole lot. The precedent it sets for future pontiffs is particularly troubling.

  6. Mark Mossa, SJ Says:

    But, hey, if Cardinal Sean is elected he can wear brown, to avoid confusion (and that’s probably what he would prefer to wear anyway!).

    Jokes aside, point well taken!

  7. Fr. Dan,
    Glad you discussed the “Pope Emeritus” title. I was wondering about that and was hoping that you would comment on it. I agree — for all the reasons you stated.

  8. Dominic Monti Says:

    Actually, Dan, although it may have been better for Benedict to avoid the white all together, it was announced that he is not going to wear the white cape, simply a white cassock. So he will “look different” – although I don’t think it will matter much as he reiterated today that he will not be making public appearances but devoting himself to prayer. I do think theologically it would have been better for his title to be, “Bishop Emeritus of Rome,” as Cardinal Hickey is titled “Archbishop Emeritus of Washington.”

  9. I also have concerns about a few things. First he keeps his name as Benedict, he continues to wear the white cassock; although he gives up the red shoes for brown loafers,and he is called “His Holiness” and very important is the fact that he will have the same Secratary( or something to that) as the new Pope. and he is refered to as Pope Emeritus.

    Since he renounced his position within the Church as Pope then he should go back to his original station in life as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. When he dies he should be buried with that name and under it Benedict 16 renounced Pope. Or something to that.

  10. I have a similar gripe around U.S. politicians continuing to be called “President” or “Governor” or “Senator” years, or decades, after they have left office. I’m sorry, but it’s NOT “President Clinton” or “Governor Romney” or “Senator Dodd” or even “former xxxx”.

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