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Pope Francis (L) with then-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI

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May 6, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – In a new biography released on May 4, Pope Benedict makes some statements that highlight his own understanding of his resignation from the papacy. He speaks in this book about the “spiritual dimension…which is alone still my mandate.” He shows an understanding of his resignation from the papacy, according to which he gave up any “concrete legal powers” and any role of governance, but at the same time maintained a “spiritual mandate.”

Pope Benedict XVI answered, in the autumn of 2018, several written questions by his biographer Peter Seewald, which then were included in Seewald's more than 1,000-page-long biography titled Benedict XVI: A Life. This book has been released in German today and will be published in English on November 17.

Part of these questions related to the fact that he had resigned on February 11, 2013 after nearly seven years being the Pope. Peter Seewald points out to Benedict that there are church historians who criticize the fact that he calls himself “Pope emeritus,” since such a title “does not exist, also since there are not two popes.” After first saying that he himself does not see why a church historian should know more about such matters than anybody else – after all they “are studying the history of the Church” – , Benedict quotes the fact that “up to the end of the Second Vatican Council, there also did not exist any resignation on the part of bishops.”

After the introduction of the position of a retired bishop, the retired Pope goes on to say, there arose the problem that “one can only become a bishop with relation to a specific diocese,” that is to say, each “consecration is always relative” and “connected with an episcopal seat.” For auxiliary bishops, for example, the Church chose “fictional seats” such as those of formerly Catholic countries in North Africa. Since with the increasing numbers of retiring bishops, these fictional seats were quickly filling up, one German bishop – Simon Landersdorfer of Passau – just decided he would become simply an 'emeritus of Passau.'”

It is here that Pope Benedict then draws a comparison with the papacy. For, such a retired bishop, he adds, “does not anymore actively have an episcopal seat, but, still finds himself in a special relationship of a former bishop to his seat.” This retired bishop, however, thereby “does not become a second bishop of his diocese,” explains Benedict. Such a bishop had “fully given up his office, yet the spiritual connection with his former seat was now being acknowledged, also as a legal quality.” This “new relationship with a seat” is “given as a reality, but lies outside of the concrete legal substance of the episcopal office.” At the same time, adds the retired Pope, the “spiritual connection” is being regarded as a “reality.”

“Thus,” he continues, “there are not two bishops, but one with a spiritual mandate, whose essence it is to serve his former diocese from within, from the Lord, by being present and available in prayer.”

“It is not conceivable why such a legal concept should not also be applied to the bishop of Rome,” Pope Benedict explicitly states, thus making it clear that according to his own ideas, he fully resigned his papal office while maintaining a “spiritual dimension” of his office.

Later on in this interview at the end of the new Seewald-biography, Benedict comes back to speak about the fact that he does not wish to comment on the question of the dubia as presented by Cardinal Raymond Burke and his fellow cardinals regarding Amoris Laetitia, since this “would lead too much into the concrete area of the church governance and thereby would leave the spiritual dimension which alone is still my mandate.”

Pope Benedict then regrets that any of his statements as a retired Pope – such as his famous 2017 remark about the capsizing boat representing the Church – is being used by his critics as means to find “a confirmation for their slander.” 

“The claim that I constantly intervene in public debates,” he also states, “is an evil distortion of reality.” Those who are using words of his, such as the ones about the capsizing of a ship – which stemmed from Saint Gregory the Great – , in order to detect “a dangerous intervention into the governance of the Church” are, in Benedict's eyes, “participating in a campaign against me which has nothing to do with the truth.” In another context, the Pope mentions especially the “German theology,” which, in a “stupid and evil way,” interpreted his words, so that “it is better not to speak about it.”

“I prefer not to analyze the real reasons as to why one wishes to silence my voice,” Benedict XVI concludes.

Further discussing this matter of a “retired Pope” with Peter Seewald, Benedict makes a comparison with the “change of the generations,” where the father of a family gives up “his legal status,” while maintaining his “human-spiritual importance,” which remains “until death.” That is to say, the “functional” aspect of fatherhood can change, not his “ontological” part.

Here, the former Pope refers to Bavarian farming families, where the father of a family at some point in his life hands over the major farmhouse to his son while staying in a smaller cottage on the same land. The son then becomes responsible for providing the father with his material needs such as food. “Thus,” Benedict argues, “his material independence is given, just as the transition of the concrete rights to the son. That means: the spiritual side of the fatherhood remains, while the situation changes with regard to the concrete rights and duties.”

In May of 2016, Archbishop Georg Gänswein had given a speech, in which he spoke about Pope Benedict and an “expanded Petrine Ministry,” a formulation which caused a debate because it might indicate that Benedict did not resign all of the different parts of the papacy. He was later to correct that statement and since has insisted that there is only one Pope. Gänswein told LifeSite in 2019: “I have already cleared up the ‘misunderstanding’ several times.” “It makes no sense at all, no, even more, it is counterproductive to insist on this ‘misunderstanding’ and to quote me again and again. This is absurd and leads to self-harm [Selbstzerfleischung]. I have clearly said that there is only one Pope, one legitimately elected and incumbent Pope, and that is Francis.”

Already in 2013, when explaining his resignation to the public, Pope Benedict XVI then had stated that “there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter. Saint Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, will be a great example for me in this. He showed us the way for a life which, whether active or passive, is completely given over to the work of God.”

LifeSite reached out to Monsignor Nicola Bux, a Vatican theologian and former collaborator of Pope Benedict XVI as a consulter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, because he had made in the past some remarks about the “juridical validity of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.” 

After LifeSite had summed up for him the new statement by Pope Benedict as it can be found in this new papal biography, Monsignor Bux answered, saying:

“In my opinion, one of the most problematic aspects would be the idea, implicit in Pope Ratzinger's act, that the papacy is not a single and indivisible office, but, on the contrary, a divisible office that can be 'unpacked', in the sense that a Pope may choose to give up some functions, keeping for himself others, which would not then be passed on to his successor. A clearly erroneous idea.”

In further exchanges with Monsignor Bux, this Italian theologian added the following thoughts:

“The comparison of the papal office with the episcopal office in what regards the abdication of the papal office is not correct. The episcopal office is conferred by episcopal ordination or consecration, imprinting an indelible character on the soul of the bishop. Thus, while he may be relieved of a particular pastoral responsibility, he remains always a bishop. The papal office is conferred by the acceptance of the election to the See of Peter, that is, by an act of the will of the person elected, accepting the call to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. From the moment that the person elected consents he has the full jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff.”

If the person elected is not a Bishop,” Monsignor Bux continued, “he must be immediately consecrated a Bishop because the papacy entails the exercise of the episcopal office, but he is Pope from the moment he consents to the election. If the same person, at a certain point, declares that he can no longer fulfill the call to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, he loses the papal office and returns to the condition in which he was before giving the consent to be the Vicar of Christ on earth.”

Here, the Italian theologian explained the fundamental principle that “the papacy is not conferred by sacramental grace. It does not imprint an indelible character upon the soul. To the one who consents to be Pope and perseveres in the consent, the grace is given, as Our Lord promised, to be 'the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful' (Lumen Gentium, no. 23). Such a grace, by its very definition, is given to only one person at any given time.”

In conclusion, Monsignor Bux writes: “Our Lord gave Peter a single mandate – legal and spiritual at the same time – and asked the Apostles to support him through communion, cum et sub Petro (with and under Peter). Saint Paul explains it as: ‘sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum’ (care of all churches). Therefore, there is no Petrine primacy to share, but two indissoluble principles in permanent communion with one another: the Petrine primacy and the episcopal team-work (collegiality).”

As becomes clear here, the scholarly discussion concerning Pope Benedict's concept of his resignation is not yet closed.

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Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli,, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana,, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.