The 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.