International News

Will Pope Benedict’s Death Open the Door to New Rules for Retired Popes?

Pope Benedict XVI poses in Alpeggio Pileo near his summer residence in Les Combes, at the Valle d’Aosta in northern Italy, July 14, 2005. Pope Benedict died Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 95 in his residence at the Vatican. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux) — With the passing of Pope Benedict XVI, the question has been raised anew as to whether Pope Francis will now issue new protocols for a pope who steps down from office, as many have speculated.

The anomaly of the whole idea of an “emeritus pope” has been clear for the past decade, and even the details of Pope Benedict’s death and funeral arrangements are providing fresh reminders.

For one thing, there was no symbolic smashing of the “fisherman’s ring,” as Pope Benedict’s was already destroyed when he became the first pope to resign from the papacy in 600 years in 2013. No death bells tolled at his passing, and no formal announcement was made by a Vatican official, although the Vatican’s regular bells, which usually toll every quarter of an hour, have been silent since Pope Benedict’s passing at 9:34 a.m. on New Year’s Eve.

Only around 60,000 people are expected to attend Pope Benedict’s funeral, compared to the 300,000 that attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, though an estimated 65,000 people paid their respects to Pope Benedict on Monday, his first day of lying in state in St. Peter’s Basilica, with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni among the first to enter.

Pope Benedict will lay in state for just three days, rather than the traditional four to six for a reigning pope, and only Germany and Italy have been invited to send official delegations for his Jan. 5 funeral, which will be presided over by Pope Francis.

Leaders of other countries have been advised that they are free to attend if they wish but in a private, rather than official, capacity. So far, several have confirmed their informal attendance or announced plans to attend, including Queen Sofia and minister Félix Bolaños of Spain; King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium; Polish President Andrzej Duda; Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda; Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa; Bavarian Governor Markus Soder; and Hungarian President Katalin Novak.

Since Pope Benedict’s historic resignation in 2013, some experts have argued that clearer rules are needed for a retired pope to prevent any confusion about who is actually in charge and to ensure there is no chance that the pope emeritus can interfere with the reign of his successor.

For instance, some canonists and experts have argued that the title he chose, “pope emeritus,” was confusing, as was his choice to continue wearing the white cassock associated with the papacy and to be addressed as “His Holiness.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s longtime personal secretary, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, said in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that Pope Benedict himself chose to be called “pope emeritus” because he was “faced with a decision so exceptional, to return to cardinal would not have been natural.”

Gänswein insisted, however, that Pope Benedict was always aware that “there was always only one pope, and he is called Pope Francis.”

His writings and public comments in retirement on issues such as clerical sexual abuse and priestly celibacy, as well as the Second Vatican Council, have frequently been spun as opposition to his predecessor or attempts to influence Pope Francis’ decision-making. Veteran Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli recently cataloged at least 30 such instances when Pope Benedict departed from his vow to remain “hidden from the world,” often at Pope Francis’ request.

Many so-called Catholic “traditionalists” have continued to make Pope Benedict XVI their papal point of reference, refusing to recognize Pope Francis’ authority. A common toast among traditionally-leaning clergy in Rome after Pope Francis’ election, for example, was to “Benedict our pope, and Francis our bishop.”

While Pope Francis in the past has said that he believes additional protocols for the office of a retired pope are necessary and that the status quo between him and his predecessor worked because Pope Benedict was both “saintly and discreet,” in a more recent interview he said he had no plans to issue such protocols himself.

Speaking to ABC Español in mid-December, Pope Francis was also asked whether he had any plans to issue a decree outlining the role of a pope emeritus.

In his response, Pope Francis said no, stating, “I didn’t change a thing, I didn’t even think about doing it,” adding that, “Perhaps the Holy Spirit has no interest in me worrying about those things.”

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has passed, the question is whether or not Pope Francis will reconsider that position or whether he plans to leave that to his own successor, as any issuance of new norms could be interpreted as critical of Pope Benedict’s actions.

Beyond Pope Francis’ own intentions, there’s also an active debate among canonists about whether it’s even possible for one pope to issue rules that would limit the choices of another. While Pope Francis could issue rules now to govern his own situation, should he elect at some future point to retire, experts say the binding force of those measures would expire with his papacy.