Who is the current pope?
Seewald reports that in a 2018 exchange, Benedict refused to answer certain questions about the current situation in the Church, on the grounds that this would “inevitably be interfering in the work of the present pope. I must avoid and want to avoid anything in that direction” (p. 533, emphasis added). That remark by itself demonstrates that Benedict does not regard himself as still pope. For if he were, then he could hardly be interfering with himself by speaking out. Benedict also explicitly rejects “any idea of there being two popes at the same time,” since “a bishopric can have only one incumbent” (p. 537). Who does he think is the one current pope, then? The answer is obvious from the fact that Benedict explicitly refers to Francis as “Pope Francis” three times in the interview (at pp. 537 and 539). He also refers to Francis as “my successor” (p. 539), and speaks of “the new pope” (p. 520).
Clearly, then, Benedict himself thinks that he is not the pope and that Francis is the pope. Now, Benevacantists claim to submit loyally to the authority of the true pope, who, they say, is still Benedict. They also think that Francis’s alleged status as an antipope explains his predilection for doctrinally problematic statements. But then, if Benevacantists submit to Benedict’s authority, shouldn’t they accept his judgment that Francis is the pope and he is not? Of course, that would be an incoherent position. Benevacantists must, accordingly, judge that Benedict is simply mistaken.
But that just leads them out of one incoherent position and into another. For if Benedict’s understanding of the nature of the papal office is so deficient that he does not even realize that he is himself pope, and instead embraces an antipope, how is he any more reliable as a teacher of doctrine than Francis? Wouldn’t this grave doctrinal error indicate that he is an antipope? Wouldn’t his being in communion with an antipope entail that he is also a schismatic, and indeed that he is in schism with himself? Wouldn’t his failure to appoint cardinals validly to elect his successor (instead leaving it to the alleged antipope Francis invalidly to make such appointments) entail that he has essentially destroyed the papal office for all time, by making it impossible ever again to have a valid papal election? How, given all of this, can Benevacantists still regard Benedict as a hero any more than they regard Francis as such? How can they avoid going full sedevacantist?
Benevacantists make much fuss about Benedict’s adoption of the “Pope Emeritus” title, taking it to be evidence that he intended to retain some aspect of the papal office. I have explained elsewhere why the title indicates no such thing, and Benedict’s remarks in the interview confirm this. Commenting on the use of “emeritus” to refer to a retired bishop, Benedict says that “the word ‘emeritus’ said that he had totally given up his office,” and retained only a “spiritual link to his former diocese” as its “former bishop” (p. 536, emphasis added). In taking the “Pope Emeritus” title, he was simply extending this preexisting usage to the specific case of the bishop of Rome.
That entails, though, that Benedict understands himself to have “totally given up” the papal office, and takes Rome to be his “former diocese.” This undermines claims to the effect that his resignation was invalid, on the grounds that he wrongly supposed that he could give up one aspect of the office (the “ministerium”) while retaining another (the “munus”). He was supposing no such thing – again, if he had been, he could not think of Rome as his former diocese, the bishopric of which he had totally given up.
Speaking of the disappointment that his resignation caused, Benedict says that, nevertheless, “I was clear that I had to do it and that this was the right moment. Otherwise, I would just wait to die to end my papacy” (p. 520). Notice that he takes his resignation to have ended his pontificate no less decisively than his death would have ended it. Needless to say, had he died, there would be no talk of him holding on to the “munus” while giving up the “ministerium.” But if he takes his resignation to have ended his papacy just as completely as his death would have, then in that case too he cannot be said to have intended to hold on to the one while renouncing only the other.
Proponents of the munus/ministerium distinction claim that Benedict laid down only the functions of the papacy, while holding on to its ontological status, which they claim he thinks cannot be given up. But in his interview with Seewald, Benedict explicitly rejects the very idea that these can be separated. In response to the question whether failing capacity is a good reason to resign the papacy, Benedict says:
Of course, that might cause a misunderstanding about function. The Petrine succession is not only linked to a function, but also concerns being. So functioning is not the only criterion. On the other hand, a pope must also do particular things… [I]f you are no longer capable it is advisable – at least for me, others may see it differently – to vacate the chair. (pp. 524-25)
Clearly, then, he takes the being and the function of the papacy to go hand in hand, so that if one renounces the one – “vacates the chair” – one thereby renounces the other.
It is also sometimes suggested that Benedict’s resignation was done under duress and thus invalidly. To that he responds:
Of course you can't submit to such demands. That is why I stressed in my speech that I was doing so freely. You can never leave if it means running away, you can never submit to pressure. You can only leave if no one is demanding it. And no one has demanded it in my time. No one. It was a complete surprise to everyone. (p. 506)
There simply can be no reasonable doubt, then, that Benedict’s resignation met the very simple criteria set out in canon law: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone” (Can. 332 §2). He clearly intended to renounce the office entirely, not merely in part. And he did so freely. End of story.
Prayer and providence
Benevacantists are extremely dismayed at the state of the Church and the world, and rightly so, because both are in ghastly shape. It is this, I submit, that helps explain their tenacious attachment to a theory that collapses pretty quickly on close inspection. Benevacantism seems to provide a solution to the difficulties posed by Francis’s problematic words and actions. In fact, as I have shown in previous commentary on this subject, it makes things far, far worse. But it can be emotionally satisfying, because it licenses criticizing Francis in a vituperative and disrespectful manner that would not be justifiable if he really is pope.
It is worth noting that Benedict too is clearly dismayed at the state of the Church and the world, and for the same reasons. Asked about corruption in the Curia, the Vatileaks scandal, and the like, he makes it clear that the real problems run much deeper than such things:
However, the actual threat to the church, and so to the papacy, does not come from these things but from the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanist ideologies. Contradicting them means being excluded from the basic social consensus. A hundred years ago anyone would have found it absurd to speak of homosexual marriage. Today anyone opposing it is socially excommunicated. The same goes for abortion and creating human beings in a laboratory. Modern society is formulating an anti-Christian creed and opposing it is punished with social excommunication. It is only natural to fear this spiritual power of Antichrist and it really needs help from the prayers of a whole diocese and the world church to resist it. (pp. 534-35)
Clearly, Benedict does not agree with those supporters of Pope Francis who pretend that concern about these matters is nothing more than a reflection of American right-wing culture war politics. On the contrary, these issues concern fundamental Christian morality and an opposition to it that derives from nothing less than the “power of Antichrist.”
Borrowing a metaphor from Gregory the Great, Benedict speaks of “the little ship of the church running into heavy storms” and proposes it as “an image of the church today, whose basic truth can hardly be disputed” (p. 537). He also says, in response to a question about the condition of the Church:
St Augustine said of Jesus’ parables about the church that, on the one hand, many people in it are only apparently so, but are really against the church… [T]here are times in history in which God’s victory over the powers of evil is comfortingly visible, and times when the power of evil darkens everything (p. 539)
Asked about whether Pope Francis should have answered the dubia submitted by four cardinals in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, Benedict declines to answer on the grounds that the question “goes into too much detail about the government of the church,” but also says:
In the church among all humanity's troubles and the bewildering power of the evil spirit, the gentle power of God's goodness can still be recognized. Although the darkness of successive eras will never simply leave the joy of being a Christian unalloyed [...] in the church and in the lives of individual Christians again and again there are moments in which we are deeply aware that the Lord loves us and that love means joy, is ‘happiness’. (p. 538)
It is hard not to see in this an attempt to offer encouragement to those disheartened by Amoris and its aftermath – and also an insinuation that the confusion that the controversy has caused in the Church reflects an attack by “the bewildering power of the evil spirit,” and the “darkness” of the present era.
If, as Benevacantists claim, Benedict really did think of himself as still possessing the munus of the papacy, it is inconceivable that he would not say and do more than he has done in the face of what he himself describes as the “heavy storms” currently facing the Church due to “the bewildering power of the evil spirit,” indeed the “spiritual power of Antichrist” which today “darkens everything.” The only plausible explanation for why he has not done so is that he believes that Francis and Francis alone is pope and that any stronger words or actions on his part would threaten schism. He obviously believes that weathering this storm requires prayer and trust in divine providence, rather than resort to crackpot theories. It is ironic that many Benevacantists mock their critics for taking precisely this attitude which Benedict himself recommends.