How will the Catholic Church handle a living ex-pope?

The resignation of Benedict XVI raises a conundrum not faced by the Catholic Church for centuries.

Gregorio Borgia/AP/File
This 2010 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI leaving at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican. On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict will resign at the end of the month.

The resignation of Benedict XVI raises a conundrum not faced by the Catholic Church for centuries: How do you handle a still living ex-pope?

For the entire 2,000 year history of the Church, the accepted orthodoxy has been for a pope to rule until he dies. A select group of cardinals then get together in a secretive conclave and a successor is chosen, in a clean break from the past.

All that has been turned on its head by Benedict’s surprise resignation, the first in the papacy since 1415. It raises a potential difficulty for the Vatican – that even after his retirement, he could become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction and dissent with his successor, whoever that might be.

In retirement, pope will publish

The Catholic Church has faced painful schisms throughout its history, in which rival claims to the Seat of St. Peter resulted in competing papacies. In 1415, Pope Gregory XII stepped down in an attempt to end just such a schism, when two rival claimants set themselves up in opposing cities – Pisa in Italy and Avignon in southern France – precipitating one of the Church’s gravest crises.

When Benedict formally resigns on the evening of Feb. 28, he will be taken probably by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer retreat of popes, in the hills outside Rome. The 85-year-old is expected to remain there for 15 to 20 days, until the conclave of around 120 cardinals drawn from around the world gathers at the Vatican and elects a new pontiff. Benedict will then take up residence in a cloistered monastery within the Vatican City State. His title at that point? Unclear. 

Inevitably he will run into his successor and will still be in daily touch with cardinals and other influential figures within the Holy See. Not only that but, according to the Vatican spokesman, Benedict will continue to write and publish treatises and essays – he is a noted theologian who recently completed a trilogy on the life of Christ.

That could produce a situation where the former pope says one thing on an important matter, while his successor says something different.

“Traditionally popes have not resigned because there is this question of what do you do with two popes,” says John Thavis, an American who has covered the Vatican for 30 years and recently wrote  an insider’s account of the Holy See – “The Vatican Diaries.”

“What should be the role of a former pope – does he have to stay quiet for the rest of his life? What if he speaks up and disagrees with his successor? You then have the prospect of the Church effectively having two popes.”

Benedict has never been regarded as a power-hungry political player and will probably embrace a return to a quiet life of study and prayer.

“I don’t think he will deliberately upstage or contradict his successor,” says Mr Thavis. “But he’s not going to be behind a wall of silence. If I was the new pope, I would be paying attention to whatever he writes about.”

Vatican: no confusion

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said there was no prospect of a schism in the Church and dismissed ideas that Benedict would attract a rival support base or interfere in papal affairs.

“We have no fears of this kind,” he told a packed press conference at the Vatican. “He will renounce the post, so there will be nothing to discuss. There will be no confusion, or division.”

In St. Peter’s Square, however, tourists and Catholic faithful were not so sure it would be quite so easy.

“To have an ex-pope who is still alive, even if they are in not very good health, is unprecedented as I understand it,” says Daniel Benedyk from London. “I don’t know how the Vatican will deal with that.”

There was collective disbelief about the news of the resignation among people strolling in front of St. Peter’s Basilica under gray winter skies.

"It was a huge surprise to me,” says Wolfgang Schnapel, a priest from Benedict's home region of Bavaria. “I only heard when my mother called me from Germany. I think it would be nice if the next pope came from Africa or Latin America. And he should definitely be younger than Benedict was.”

Flora Joseph, a nun from Tanzania, says: "It's very difficult to accept. I have been saying to myself 'why is he leaving, why doesn't he want to continue?' But he is an old man and he has so many appointments and meetings. I guess he just has no energy left anymore."

Nicola Signorile, a businessman from Bari in southern Italy, said he was deeply saddened by the announcement, speculating that the pope must be very ill –although the Vatican has given no indication he has health problems. "If he has made this choice, it must be for a very good reason."

Only a handful of Benedict’s closest confidantes knew that he had made the decision to resign, including Tarcisio Bertone, who as Vatican secretary of state is effectively prime minister of the tiny city state, Georg Ganswein, the pope’s private secretary, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the head of the College of Cardinals.

The papacy had seemed to many Italians like the one remaining constant in their lives after having been buffeted in the last few years by earthquakes, floods, the fall of Silvio Berlusconi, and the imposition of tough austerity measures by his successor, Mario Monti. The economy is in a deep recession and politics in turmoil ahead of a general election on Feb. 24-25.

“I can’t believe it – first the government is about to end, now it’s the papacy that’s in trouble,” says Marco, a taxi driver. “Everything is falling apart. I’ll be sad to see Benedict go. He was a bit cold and German, but he was a decent man.”

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