Maike Hickson

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Cardinal Walter Brandmüller

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Remembering Cardinal Brandmüller’s criticism of Pope Benedict’s resignation

Maike Hickson Maike Hickson Follow Maike

September 20, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Today, two letters from Pope Benedict XVI to an unnamed German cardinal were leaked. In these letters, the retired Pope defends himself against criticism of his decision to resign.

In 2016 and 2017, it was Cardinal Walter Brandmüller who wrote his own public criticism of this papal resignation.

“The resignation of a Pope is possible and has happened. But it is to be hoped that it never happens again,” were Cardinal Brandmüller’s specific and earnest words.

As today Katholisch.de – the news website of the German bishops – points out, Cardinal Brandmüller, as a Church historian and former President of the Papal Commission for Historical Sciences, rebuked Pope Benedict XVI in a 2017 interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Cardinal Brandmüller said in that interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “the ‘papa emeritus’ as a figure does not exist in the entire Church history.” It did “not only astonish the cardinals,” he adds, “that a Pope now comes and tumbles down a 2,000-year-old tradition.” For him, at the time, the news of Benedict's resignation seemed to be a pre-Lenten “carnival jest.”

Earlier, in the summer of 2016, Cardinal Brandmüller made even more detailed remarks. At the time, there had been a discussion going on concerning Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s claims of a “continued mystical participation in the papacy” from the retired Pope. Brandmüller responded to this in an essay for the Italian journal Stato, Chiese, e pluralismo confessionale and said that such talk belongs to the realm “of uplifting speculations of religious poetry.”

“A two-headed papacy would be a monstrosity,” adds Brandmüller. In his view, even if Canon Law permits it, it is “not necessarily morally permissible” for a Pope to resign. For such a step to be taken, there should exist clear objective reasons that aim at the good of the Church.

Since the primacy of the Petrine Office is of a mere legal nature – unlike an ordained sacramental office – his resignation also effects legal aspects of the Petrine Office, explains the Cardinal. Thus, the retired Pope is “not any more Bishop of Rome, not Pope, and also not a Cardinal.”

Cardinal Brandmüller regrets that Pope Benedict’s resignation gave a wrong impression, namely that “the unique and holy” office of the Pope has now been leveled down to one similar to a democratic office. Such a “secular-political understanding” contains the further danger of future calls for other Popes to resign.

“It is possible that a Pope resigns, and it has been done. But it is to be hoped that it will never happen again,” said Brandmüller.

For a resignation to be licit and also morally permitted, there has to be a just reason for it.

“A bond that is so close such as the one between Pope and Church, must not be dissolved arbitrarily,” the Church historian explains with reference to an earlier discussion of this matter back in the time of Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). In order to be able to ascertain that a Pope has made a free and thus valid decision to resign, Cardinal Brandmüller proposes the College of Cardinals be involved in the process.

Furthermore, the German prelate also reflects upon the specific status of such a retired Pope. Such a Pope could, for example, become a Cardinal without an active or passive right to elect another Pope and he should therefore take again his family name, instead of keeping his papal name, so as to avoid the impression that there are “two Popes.” Additionally, the question of the clothing of the retired Pope, his residence, and his later burial – as well as his social and media contacts – should all be clearly regulated so that “any danger for the unity of the Church would be excluded,” according to Brandmüller.

The Gänswein speech of May 2016 – in which the archbishop spoke about an “expanded petrine ministry” with regard to the retired Pope Benedict XVI – caused an extended debate in Germany as to how such a papal resignation could and should look, and what a retired Pope should do. Church historians and journalists consider the current situation and confusion concerning two Popes to be “an unending story.”

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Maike Hickson

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, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.