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Now that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has passed away, it’s time to assess the first post-papal tenure in 600 years. What have we learned since February 2013, when Benedict shocked the Catholic Church and the world by announcing that he would step down at the end of the month? A church that seemingly had a doctrine and canon for every conceivable scenario had no road map for how this would go, so Benedict—a Bavarian professor who spoke in paragraphs and valued order and rule-following—was winging it. 

Nearly a decade later and with Benedict, for decades known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, buried underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, we can finally ask: how did Benedict, his successor Pope Francis, and the Vatican handle what looked like—but wasn’t—a circumstance in which there were two popes at the same time? And how might we handle this situation better if it happens again?

When Benedict surprised everyone by resigning he became the first pope to step down since Gregory XII in 1415, who had to quit to help heal the Great Western schism with its three rival popes, one who had been in Avignon for over a century.  

The most famous of the handful of papal resignations before that happened was when Celestine V stepped down after only six months in office in 1294. In his epic poem Inferno, Dante placed poor Celestine—a hermit who was completely baffled by curial politics—just inside the Gates of Hell, the spot reserved for those deserving neither praise nor blame. 

That’s a harsher judgment than Benedict received, though many of his friends were upset that he opted to step down. There were also more than a few conspiracy theorists, whose imaginations were inflamed by the simmering scandals in the last few years of Benedict’s papacy and who wanted to find dark motives behind his resignation or to suggest he was still the legitimate pontiff. 

To this, the former pope was definitive: “There is absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry,” he said a year later in 2014, labeling any such “speculations” as “simply absurd.”

Did Benedict do the right thing in the wrong way? Missteps were a hallmark of his papacy: he reinstated a schismatic bishop who denied the Holocaust and he approved the broader use of the Latin rite of the Mass that retained disparaging language about Jews in the Good Friday liturgy. A speech on Islam began with an insulting rhetorical anecdote from the Middle Ages. To his credit, Benedict moved to address these mistakes, but this pattern made for a papacy of unintended consequences. That was true of his post-papacy, too.

Some commentators have suggested that a pope should not—even cannot—resign. Of course, this is patently against free will and even duty, as Benedict himself indicated when he stated he realized he could no longer do the job. Just because sloppy headline writers and pundits kept using the “two popes” phrase because it was easy and just because this pope emeritus’s post-papal career was fumbled doesn’t mean popes cannot resign in the future. But we need a better way forward.

Why did it look like we have had two popes since 2013? 

First: Benedict continued to wear white. His implausible explanation was that no black cassock was available in his size when he resigned. Instead, he should have worn a black bishop’s robe—a bishop never stops being a bishop—but a white skullcap (called a zucchetto) instead of the traditional purple episcopal skullcap. 

Second: title and name. When a man is elected pope, he takes a new name. If Pope Benedict is no longer pope, then he is no longer Benedict. Instead of being Pope emeritus, a title Benedict invented, call him bishop emeritus of Rome, which is a common formulation in dioceses with a retired bishop. (All bishops except the Bishop of Rome—a.k.a. “the Pope”—must submit their retirement request at age seventy-five and they cannot remain in office after eighty.) A way through this issue of title and name would be to call him Bishop Joseph, keeping his own birth name. This rightfully identifies him as a bishop but uses the papal style of a first name. Since he can’t be called “His Holiness” any longer, return to the bishop’s address, “His Grace.” 

Third: should the former pope be publishing and giving interviews? No—and the retired pope did not live a life of quiet contemplation hidden from the world, as he promised. Even a 2018 letter praising Pope Francis’s theological works led Benedict and Francis into controversy when it was revealed the former pope hadn’t read through all the volumes. 

Then in April 2019 Benedict’s aide released a letter on clergy sex abuse that seemed to undermine a summit on the topic that Pope Francis had just held. The letter certainly didn’t sound as if it had come from the elegant pen of Joseph Ratzinger. It seemed more likely to have been ghost-written by others using the cobbled together musings of a great but very elderly person of diminishing capacity.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of the fumbled post-papal career came in February 2020 when an African cardinal claimed that Benedict had co-authored a book arguing in favor of priestly celibacy—a topic of intense debate at the time thanks to the synodal discussions that Pope Francis was encouraging. 

The conclusion is clear: going forward, any Emeritus Bishop of Rome must not communicate except through the current pope’s media office. And if an Emeritus Pope had to speak, it should be only to shut down such nonsense.

Pope Paul VI (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Benedict’s resignation and post-papal career also gave the church the opportunity to have an important if uncomfortable conversation: what to do with a pope who becomes physically or mentally incapacitated on a permanent basis? Does the pope have a living will, a health care proxy, or a do-not-resuscitate order? Who decides when an incapacity exists? Several historians and canon lawyers have suggested that a delegation of cardinals might be invested with this authority. Perhaps the United States Constitution’s Twenty-Fifth Amendment or other countries’ equivalents might be places to begin to work out such a procedure.

There are Vatican precedents to explore these questions. Pope Pius XII reportedly had a document ready in case Vatican City was invaded in World War II and he was taken captive. If that were to occur, he said, he would cease to be pope and go back to being Cardinal Pacelli. Pope Paul VI envisioned his sickness or grave impediment in a 1965 letter, and Pope John Paul II made similar statements in 1989 and 1994. Both Benedict and Francis also wrote pending resignation letters. Benedict, ever the company man, surely watched Parkinson’s disease grind John Paul II down and decided that he wouldn’t let the possibility of a similar incapacity hurt the office or, more especially, the church.  

Benedict’s post-papal career offers Catholicism the chance to take seriously these issues and put into canon law formal protocols on the former pope’s name, title, clothing, advisable actions, and contingencies for incapacity. If these steps are taken, they can be seen as Joseph Ratzinger’s last gift to the church to whom he dedicated every stage of his life.

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Kean University and he is the author of the forthcoming book, Humility: The Secret History of a Lost Virtue (Georgetown University Press, 2023).