The question of “two Popes” bothers a lot of people. Some thoughts.

Today, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, is also the 70th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s ordination to the priesthood.

It seems a propitious a day to deal with questions that pepper my inbox.  Questions about Benedict’s resignation.

The questions range from “Did Benedict really resign? Was it valid?” to “If Benedict is really still The Pope, what happens if he passes away before Francis?” to “If Francis isn’t The Pope, and he is naming cardinals, how could there be a legitimate conclave?”

That scratches the surface of the questions.

I will try to deal with these issues dispassionately and work through some of them as mind exercises.

Mind you, I’m not an authority in this matter, in the sense of being able to give a definitive answer: no one really is.   The situation we have today, with Francis and Benedict both in white, both in the Vatican City State, both seemingly given apostolic blessings, is unlike anything we have seen in history.  Moreover, since your planet’s yellow sun doesn’t give me psychic powers, I can only guess at what, for example, Benedict was thinking when he read his resignation during that fateful consistory in 2013.

Again, our situation is not the same as previous times in the Church when there have been more than one pope, or there has been a resignation.  That doesn’t mean that history can’t give us a crowbar.

Over at his splendid blog, Fr. John Hunwicke had an engaging piece provoked by the whirling of your planet back to the annual Feast of St. Silverius, Pope and Martyr (+537).

Fr. H used this occasion to look into a question which vexes many a thoughtful Catholic these days: two popes at the same time.  Possible?  Fact: Francis is going around doing pope things while Benedict lives in the Vatican Gardens still looking a lot like The Pope.  It’s a head-scratcher.

NB: Some people wave away questions about “two popes” or an invalid resignation.  To my mind, it is wrong-headed to gloss over hard questions that vex people, to turn a blind eye to them and whistle a happy tune with fingers deep into one’s ears.  There are people who are really upset by this situation.  We have an obligation to tackle these questions head on in order to put people at ease about them.   Let’s do that.

Back to Fr Hunwicke’s piece.

Background first:  In 537, the Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius entered Rome and deposed Pope Silverius who had been elected the previous year.  Belisarius brought in his own guy, Vigilius, and made him Pope while Silverius was still alive (for a few months, at least).  So, who was the real Pope?

Is (and Fr. H brings this possibility up) it enough to say that whoever has his “bum on the seat” is The Real Pope?   Or is he a usurper and antipope even though he has the chair (aka “see”).

Here’s a mind exercise.  Say that there are two “popes”.   One of them (Pope 1) was, unquestionably elected according to the proper procedure after the death of his predecessor.  He is deposed or maybe resigns but under duress or in a confused way.  Another guy is, in these questionable circumstances, elected or imposed as Pope 2 and he starts to pope.  Francis didn’t, at first, call himself “Pope” and he seems to have dropped the title “Vicar of Christ”.

Then Pope 1, dies.   What then?

Hunwicke, good teacher that he is, gives us more to think about.

One possibility is that another conclave is to be held to replace Pope 1, because he was the real Pope.

Otherwise, “pragmatically”, we just say that Pope 2 is now the Pope and no conclave is necessary until he should die.

That’s what happened with Silverius and Vigilius.  Vigilius was, in effect, an antipope because Silverius was deposed by force.   But he seamlessly is acknowledged as legitimate Pope when news arrives that Silverius is dead.

Satisfying answer?

Hunwicke provides something from dom Gueranger concerning Silverius and Vigilius (my emphases):

“The inevitable play of human passions, interfering in the election of the Vicar of Christ, may perchance for a while render uncertain the transmission of spiritual power. But when it is proved that the Church … acknowledges in the person of a certain pope, until then doubtful, the true Sovereign Pontiff, this her very recognition is a proof that, from that moment at least, the occupant of the Apostolic See is as such invested by God himself.”

Do you get that?   No matter how strange a path by which some fellow became the one with his “bum in the chair”, when “the Church” acknowledges him, then he is the legitimate Pope.

Note well that phrase, “from that moment at least”.   Until that time, doubtful.  Afterward, certain.

This suggests that there is a way in which being Vicar of Christ and being Bishop of Rome can be, momentarily at least, bifurcated.

And as far as the authority of the separated-Bishop of Rome, his jurisdiction is concerned, I guess that would have to be an amazing case of Ecclesia supplet.  According to can. 144:

“In factual or legal common error and in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and internal forum.”

So, even if Francis is in a chair he shouldn’t be in, that of the Bishop of Rome, his juridical acts could be valid because the Church supplies the jurisdiction.  Hence, he can name clergy to Roman Churches… who are the Cardinals… who form the next conclave.

Again, satisfying answer?

If we were to apply this to the questions raised by smart and devout Catholics about the legitimacy – validity – of Benedict’s resignation and the subsequent election of Francis what would we say?

IF Benedict still is truly the only legitimate Pope, and if he outlives Francis and there is another conclave, we are in pretty much the same position as we are now.  More on that, and on the conclave that would follow, below.

IF Benedict, still truly the only legitimate Pope, dies before Francis, then – according to what Gueranger wrote about the situation of Silverius and Vigilius – Francis would be Pope because he is sitting in the chair no matter how he got there.   This is because “the Church” (I guess that’s a majority of people in the Church, especially the hierarchy and cardinals who elected him) says he is.  Again, Ecclesia supplet.

Of course the vast majority now say Francis is The Pope, period, end of discussion.   They don’t raise questions.  Some even scoff at those who do.

For some smart people that is not the end of the discussion.  They have hard questions and not all the answers are perfectly clear.  Thus, they keep asking the questions.  Some leave the unity of the Church for Orthodoxy or Sedevacantism today’s situation.  I believe those are foolish escapes into fantasy.

In this mind exercise, if Benedict is still The Real Pope, and he dies before Francis, must there be conclave to elect a new Pope or does Francis by default become Pope (cf. Gueranger)?

Keep going.

It’s the stuff of a ripping good novel.

By the way, in the same year as Francis – who from 2013 onward usually only referred to himself as “Bishop of Rome” – ordered that Pachamama demon idol bowl placed on the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, a thing hard to imagine a Vicar of Christ doing, he also dropped the title “Vicar of Christ” from his own person, relegating it to a “historical title”.  HERE

Let’s play the mind exercise out a little more and hack through some of the issues which I have heard raised by, for example, Ann Barnhardt, who is without question of the mind that Benedict is still Pope and Francis is a usurper antipope.  Along with Ann is a smart fellow with well-articulated arguments, Edward Mazza.

I’ll try to spin out what they have been discussing.  I hope I don’t put my foot wrong and mischaracterize their positions.  I’m happy to be corrected.

It seems that… in their view…

Benedict did NOT legitimately resign, because the language he used at the time he announced his resignation is confused. The confused language suggests that Benedict intended to resign the active dimension of his role, his ministerium (for example, doing stuff as Bishop of Rome and doing stuff as Pope to the larger world). However, he did not intend to resign his munus as Vicar of Christ.  Much turns on the technical term munus.

The fact is that munus and ministerium do not mean the same thing, though they are often bound together.  For example, one carries out a certain ministry in the Church because he holds an office, a munus.  Canon law says that the Pope has to resign the munus.  

Canon 332 §2: Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur.  … If it should come to pass that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and that it be properly manifested, but not that it is accepted by anyone.

But Benedict said in his resignation:

Quapropter bene conscius ponderis huius actus plena libertate declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commisso renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20, sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet et Conclave ad eligendum novum Summum Pontificem ab his quibus competit convocandum esse.…  For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Words have meanings.   It is not right simply to conflate munus and ministerium as if they are interchangeable.  They are closely tied to each other but they are not synonyms.  Not even close.

It is interesting to read the Canon that introduces the figure of the Roman Pontiff, the Pope:

Can. 331 — Ecclesiae Romanae Episcopus, in quo permanet munus a Domino singulariter Petro, primo Apostolorum, concessum et successoribus eius transmittendum, Collegii Episcoporum est caput, Vicarius Christi atque universae Ecclesiae his in terris Pastor; qui ideo vi muneris sui suprema, plena, immediata et universali in Ecclesia gaudet ordinaria potestate, quam semper libere exercere valet. … The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom persists the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

First, in this, we see the person of the Bishop of the Roman Church.  In this Roman Bishop one thing which “continues, endures”: a munus given by Christ.   Permaneo is “to stay to the end; to hold out, last, continue, endure, remain; to persist, persevere”.  Sounds rather “permanent”, no?  This munus can be and must be (-ndum) passed to his successors.  It goes from one Bishop of Rome to another.  If you are legitimately Bishop of Rome, the munus is yours.    It is reasonable to assume that the three things that follow in the canon, are results of this munus, and they go to whomever is legitimately Bishop of Rome, namely, 1) “Head of the college of Bishops, 2) Vicar of Christ, 3) Pastor of the universal Church on earth.   On earth, not in heaven.

There is some evidence (e.g., a speech given by Archbp. Gaenswein) that Benedict reasoned that he could tease the active, ministerial role of the papacy away from the interior, perhaps even ontological, reality of being Vicar of Christ, an office which, once offered by the current legitimate practice (i.e., conclave) and accepted, cannot be lost until death or proper form of resignation (which Canon Law described).  Hence, if that accurately describes Benedict’s thought, if a pope is invested as Vicar of Christ, he can’t lose that office even if he resigns as, say, Bishop of Rome.  Why?  Because, in this line of thought, it is “permanent” (cf. permaneo).   Of course we can say that something is permanent, until it isn’t.  The Washington Monument is a permanent structure… but it could be knocked down.

Let’s stick with “permanent” for a moment. There is permanence in the sense of baptism or Holy Orders.  Matrimony is also permanent, until it isn’t. While the spouses are alive on earth, they are legitimately married, bound to each other by a bond that no man can break.  On earth, it is permanent.  Yet, when one of them dies, the other is no longer married.   The bond ceases.  On the other hand, when you are baptized or ordained, a permanent mark is on the soul such that even after death you remain baptized or ordained.

Now look at that phrase: “pastor of the universal Church on earth…. universae Ecclesiae his in terris Pastor.”  Look at the structure. The words his in terris are inserted between Ecclesiae and PastorNot only that, in separates his and terris.   Two examples of timesis, the separation of words that go together with other words, one timesis creating the other timesis.

The Latin of Canon Law isn’t really the place where one expects elegant flourishes.  It’s legalese and, as such, it’s precise.  Words and their arrangement have meanings.   Does this elegant timesis within timesis, like onion peels, suggest that the dimension of the munus which confers being Pastor of the Church endures (permaneo) only while on earth?   Again, words and their organization have meanings.  If, for example, that sentence read: “Collegii Episcoporum est caput, Vicarius Christi atque universae Ecclesiae Pastor his in terris…”, it could seem that all three, Head, Vicar, Pastor, are only “his in terris“, while on earth.  In the actual sentence, there is Head and Vicar and then, Pastor-while-on-earth.  In English, it could sound like his in terris applies to all three but the Latin strongly connects it to Pastor, otherwise… why the timesis which obviously calls attention to it in Latin?

There is another timesis in that canon which emphasizes that the Roman Pontiff has full authority… where? Let’s see “suprema, plena, immediata et universali in Ecclesia gaudet ordinaria potestate”.  All those adjectives connect to the last word, the noun potestas.  Plop in Ecclesia smack into the middle of all that and you underscore that a pope’s power is in the Church, not in the world.  He can command that which has to do with the Church, but he cannot command world leaders or make civil laws (outside Vatican City State).

Where is this going?

This Adventure In Timesis suggests that somehow being Pastor doesn’t have the same quality as being Head and Vicar.   Just to spin that out a little more, could Pastor be the way that ministry is connected juridically to the munus that endures?  Is this the way by which Benedict may have thought that he could separate ministerium and munus, remaining Vicar of Christ (an interior state of being) while handing over the activity, the ministry, of Bishop of Rome?

I’m not saying hereby that, because of this phrase, the state of being Vicar of Christ endures in heaven, like priesthood or baptism.  However, it seems to me that that is something that Benedict suggested: that once conferred the state of being Vicar of Christ was like to, similar to, an ontological mark on the soul.   So, resign the ministry of Pastor, and the qualities given by the munus of Vicarius and Caput remain.

This brings up some pretty interesting questions.

There have been discussions, for example around the time of Vatican I, about the nature of the papacy, the Petrine office.   Among these questions is that of the connection of the papacy, the office of Vicar of Christ, with the See of Rome.

Is the Petrine Office absolutely and inextricably bound up with being the Bishop of Rome?

When Christ made Peter His Vicar at Caesarea Philippi, Peter wasn’t bishop of anything, much less of Rome.  He wasn’t even a priest.  That would come at the Last Supper.  At that times Christ redefined who Peter was and renamed him.  Inwardly, something was new about Peter.  He had a munus.  He didn’t lose it with his threefold denial during the Passion.  Later, at See of Galilee in John 21, Peter was already Vicar of Christ when (now a priest and bishop), he was reconciled with the Lord for his threefold denials.   At that time, Christ described more fully what Peter was to do: feed my sheep.  Peter, who had an inward munus, then also had an active ministerium that flowed from the enduring munus.   Later, Peter went to Antioch and founded a Church.  Even later, Peter went to Rome where he died.  A new Vicar of Christ was chosen in Rome, thus sealing the deal: Peter’s successor is both Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ.  He has both the inward munus, and the outward ministerium.

But is being Vicar of Christ absolutely bound up with being Bishop of Rome?

Today we celebrate Sts.  Peter and Paul, namely their martyrdom in Rome.  Perhaps by Peter’s martyrdom, being Vicar of Christ (and Head and Pastor) was inextricably welded with being Bishop of Rome.    Perhaps not.

The fact remains that Peter was Vicar of Christ before he was ordained, before left the Holy Land, before he went to Rome.  Being Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ were not, in an absolute sense, tied together.  Are they now?  Auctores scinduntur.

BTW… I once was chatting with Card. Ratzinger in the halls of the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio.  He jokingly quipped that he was glad that Peter stopped in Rome and didn’t go north to Germany.  “Think of the great efficiency with which we could make our mistakes!”   At least the Italian way of doing things slows down the effects of incompetence.   I bring that up because I think that Ratzinger had pondered the connection of being Bishop of Rome and being Vicar of Christ long before he was elected as both.

Back to the issue of Benedict’s resignation.  Let’s tease out some threads.

If the somewhat ambiguous use of what are technical terms in the resignation really means something, namely that Benedict intended to resign as Bishop of Rome but not as Vicar of Christ, and IF THE OFFICES ARE SEPARABLE, Benedict could still be Vicar of Christ while the guy the cardinals elected in the conclave of 2103 would really be the Bishop of Rome.  After all, the cardinals are really clergy of Rome.  That’s why all cardinals have assigned churches in Rome.  In the ancient way of things, the Roman clergy elected their bishop when the See of Rome was empty. As it happens, that Bishop of Rome is also now Vicar of Christ because Bishop of Rome Peter was Vicar of Christ.

BUT… if it really is possible to resign the ministry of Peter as Bishop of Rome without resigning the office of Vicar of Christ, and if that is what Benedict intended, then in 2013 the cardinals elected the Roman Pontiff, their Bishop, but not the Vicar of Christ, that office still sticking stubbornly to Benedict.

Back to our scenario of Pope Silverius and Pope Vigilius.

Recall: Silverius is still alive when Belisarius imposes Vigilius. For all purposes he is Bishop in Rome. Vigilius acts like Bishop of Rome while Silverius is still the Vicar of Christ.  Silverius dies and Vigilius is… then… what?  Vicar of Christ also from the time Silverius dies?   It defaults to him because a) the office of Vicar of Christ can be separated from Bishop of Rome though they are still tied together and b) the holder of the office of Vicar of Christ dies, thus “releasing” that office to snap over into Vigilius?  That’s Gueranger’s solution.

But wait there’s more.

Still working the mind exercise now.

If the offices can be separated and if Benedict really was trying to separate the office of Vicar of Christ, which he desired to retain (hey… he still wears white, lives in the Vatican, kept his regnal name, etc.) then he is, in a sense, still Pope (insofar as he is Vicar of Christ) but without being Pope (insofar as he is no longer Bishop of Rome).  That means that there are two Popes: Benedict (insofar as he would still be Vicar of Christ) and Francis (insofar as he was legitimately elected Bishop of Rome by the Roman clergy, the College of Cardinals, in a legitimate conclave).

Meanwhile, don’t forget what Benedict allegedly said to Corriere della Sera in an incoherent report in March 2020: “Non ci sono due Papi.  Il Papa e uno solo… (ellipsis in the original)”, that is, “There are not two Popes.  The Pope is one only….”

Remember: “pope” is just a word, a title.  It isn’t magic.  There are various “popes” in various Churches.   Don’t get caught up too much in that one word.

However, if, as some people think, the offices CANNOT be separated, then Benedict was in substantial error about what he was trying to do.  This is Ann and Edward’s position.  Being in substantial error about the terms of his resignation would mean that the resignation itself was invalid.  That would mean that Benedict is still Vicar of Christ.

If that is right, then what the cardinals did in the conclave in 2013 was to elect a new Bishop of Rome who, like Vigilius in 537, took Silverius’s See.  As Hunwicke puts it: possession is nine tenths of the law.

Therefore, if all of that is right, should Benedict go to God before Francis, then the office of Vicar of Christ might mysteriously – a la Gueranger – attach itself within Francis (Bishop of Rome) and life goes on.  If that doesn’t happen, then the office of Vicar of Christ would be empty, as it is normally between pontificates, until Francis should die and the College of Cardinals elects a new Bishop of Rome who will then also be, because of the powerful bond between being Vicar of Christ and Roman Pontiff, both, again in one person.


That said, if Benedict did the resignation properly so as to resign the whole shootin’ match, then all of this is moot: Francis is both Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome whether or not those offices can be separated.  That’s the majority position, as you know.

Historically, there were long periods of time when the See of Peter was empty.  For example, between the death of Nicholas IV on 4 April 1292 and the election Celestine V (of unhappy memory) on 5 July 1294, 2 years and 3 months passed.   Then Celestine resigned and Boniface VIII was the result.   Even Dante, who detested Boniface VIII, still defended Boniface’s office, if not his person, in the Divine Comedy.

Historically, there were long periods of time when the Vicar of Christ was not in Rome, starting with Peter.  At Caesarea Philippi Peter received his office as Christ’s Vicar in AD 31-32.   Peter goes to Rome in, perhaps, the early 50’s and dies in Rome in 64.  So, Peter was Vicar of Christ for a long time before he arrived in Rome.   Later, the Successors of Peter, who were Bishops of Rome, were away from Rome in Avignon from 1309 to 1377.

The point being that the Church can exist and function for a while without a Vicar of Christ or a Bishop in Rome. Perhaps the office of Roman Pontiff, Vicar of Christ, has, as John O’Malley suggests in his fascinating book on Vatican I, morphed into something that it wasn’t before.  No.  Better… perhaps our view of popes has, over time, shifted.  Perhaps we emphasize the person of The Pope today in a way which clouds other important things.

Let’s be clear.  The Petrine Office is a necessary, constitutive part of the Church as Christ founded it.   In the short term it can be interrupted, but it is, in the long term, indispensable.   The Church is indefectible and, therefore, there will be, to the end, a Successor of Peter, a Vicar of Christ.

At this point you might be wondering what practical effect this has for your life.

In some regards, not much.  Popes came and went and things remained stable.  Provided you have a couple of solid priests nearby, it doesn’t make a huge difference who the bishop is or who the Pope is.  But… wait… bishops are replaced by popes and priests are replaced by bishops.  Let there come “new pharaoh who knows not Joseph” and see just how fast he can screw up your faith life in serious ways!   Hence, in shorter terms who The Pope is doesn’t make much difference, so long as there is one in one condition or the other, healthy and active or elderly and frail, sharp or not, etc.   People once went for years with no idea about even the name of the Pope or that one had died and another was elected.  In the long term it does matter.

Another thing you might wondering is, if it makes a difference who the Pope is, and if something is screwed up now in the succession, what’s going to happen?   If Benedict is really the Pope and Francis is, but Francis is making all these changes, what is going to happen?  If Francis is naming all sorts of cardinals, but Francis isn’t the Pope, then will the conclave be legit?   Is this the end of the papacy?

No, the Church is indefectible.   Gueranger tried to work through that, above.

Think of it this way.  If Benedict was right, and he resigned being Bishop of Rome adequately (some say he didn’t) and Francis was elected to be Bishop of Rome (but isn’t Vicar of Christ), then Francis can name cardinals because cardinals are clergy of Rome.   That’s why they have Roman churches.  Naming cardinals is a function of the Bishop of Rome.   Even if both Benedict and Francis should go to God, there is still a College of Cardinals.  The one whom they would elect, Benedicto Franciscoque defunctis, would be The new Pope.

“But Father!  But Father!”, some of you are jittering and puffing, “Why didn’t Benedict just tell us what he was doing?  Why do we have to doubt and guess and surmise and … and … guess?”

Good question.

There are a few theories about why he resigned.  Firstly, he said that he didn’t feel up it or have the strength to do it anymore.   I think we have to believe that he really thought that.   But there may have been additional factors.

For example, it could be that he was under huge pressure from monetary concerns and problems at the “Vatican Bank”. There were reports about internal corruption and a “gay mafia”.  It could be that he was worried about his health.  He had had a stroke in 1991 and perhaps he was afraid that, with modern medicine, those around him would be able to keep him alive and then act badly in his name and authority.  It could be all of those.

Remember: can. 188 says that a resignation made in the state of grave fear inflicted unjustly would be invalid.  If Benedict was being pressured by powers that control banking, or if he was being threatened about a dossier or even matters concerning his brother, then he was under duress and the resignation would have been invalid.

Perhaps he did so willingly, but so willed because he was under duress from without and from within that caused him to think that resigning was the best option: and in that case it was willing.   It turns into a Catch-22.

Again, why didn’t Benedict say what he was doing?  Why doesn’t he say NOW what he tried to do?

If Benedict intended – here comes the speculation again – if he intended to bifurcate the papacy and remain Vicar of Christ while letting go of being actively the Bishop of Rome, then perhaps his use of ministerium rather than munus was a kind of “breadcrumb”, which he knew people would eventually follow.   Thus, at the time he was being forced out, but he left tell-tale signs that he was under duress.  And that would mean that he wanted people to figure out that his resignation was invalid.


If a Pope doesn’t resign willingly, the resignation is invalid.

If the Pope has in mind some sort of project papacy – like bifurcate it – and that project is in fact impossible, then the Pope is in substantial error and the resignation is invalid.

Can. 188 – A resignation made out of grave fear that is inflicted unjustly or out of malice, substantial error, or simony is invalid by the law itself.

Either way, duress or error, Benedict would still be Pope in the sense of being Vicar of Christ, for sure, and perhaps also of Bishop of Rome.

Breadcrumbs.  Here’s another.  I alluded to it, above.

At his last General Audience, Benedict said:

[A]llow me to go back once again to 19 April 2005. The real gravity of the decision was also due to the fact that from that moment on I was engaged always and forever by the Lord. Always – anyone who accepts the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and completely to everyone, to the whole Church. In a manner of speaking, the private dimension of his life is completely eliminated.  …


The “always” is also a “forever” – there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter. Saint Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, will be a great example for me in this. He showed us the way for a life which, whether active or passive, is completely given over to the work of God.

Breadcrumbs.   Those remarks in the last audience can be read in different ways.  For example, when he says he is not returning to his former life of conferences, etc., remember that as Cardinal Ratzinger he did a lot of that private activity that didn’t have to do with his munus and ministerium as Prefect of CDF and Dean of the College of Cardinals.

And he still dresses like a pope, except that he doesn’t use the shoulder cape that is/was a sign of jurisdiction.


Friends, I think the main point to take from this is, “all shall be well – all manner of things shall be well”.

The Church is indefectible. The Petrine dimension of the Church was willed by Christ as a constitutive element of the Church.  Popes come and go.  Historically there have been gaps and, as we have seen, overlaps of a kind.

“All shall be well.”

The Holy Spirit, as Joseph Ratzinger pointed out, guides the election of popes in such a way that they don’t cause total disaster.  Fallible men elected wicked popes in the past.  Some popes were imposed even while others were alive.  Turning the sock inside out, it could be that even wicked popes were elected under the influence of the Holy Spirit in order to punish the Church or to awaken her from a slumber and to begin a reform.  It could be that the Holy Spirit rigged the election of bad popes precisely to break us from thinking that their every word and action is more important than it really is; to batter down papalotry.

“All manner of things shall be well.”

One way or another, and it won’t be that long from now, all of these questions will be moot.  The whole thing will resolve in time.

I apologize for the length of this.  I apologize for the repetitions, too.  After re-reading I left some in because I wanted to help some people keep track of important points.

I have turned on the moderation queue for this.  There will be no Francis bashing.  If that’s your point, think again and stick to the topic.

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  1. teomatteo says:

    I think that these great questions that many have would evaporate–if the new one was solid.

  2. Thomas says:

    I remember thinking at the time, in 2013, how strange it was that Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis wanted to be called “Bishop of Rome”. Not being certain that I remembered it correctly, I looked it up. This article is from 2013, updated in ’15.

  3. Thomas S says:

    Thinking along these lines… If Francis is Bishop of Rome with all that entails jurisdictionally, but not Vicar of Christ, what does that mean for doctrinal matters? Can a Bishop of Rome, who is not also Vicar of Christ, make theological declarations that are binding for the universal Church, or could only the Vicar of Christ do so? Would such a Bishop of Rome be deprived of the charism of infallibility?

    [Let’s think about this. In Luke 22 the Lord instituted the Eucharist and Holy Orders. At this point Peter is a bishop, first bishop, head not just of the Apostles but of the newly established College of Bishops. With the munus of being Christ’s Vicar, this munus of Head will be passed on. The Lord explains to Peter at this time: ““Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” 33 And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” 34 He said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.”” Note he starts with Simon and ends with Peter. Christ explains that Peter’s office will include “strengthening your brethren”. This is understood today as being able to clarify doctrine, teach infallibly. This is what is invoked by Popes when they teach infallibly. Later, at the See of Galilee the Lord reconciles Peter and then explains his ministerium, “feed my sheep”. He adds that when Peter is old “another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go”. Bottom line: A man who is elected Bishop of Rome by a real conclave, but who could not be Vicar of Christ because that munus is still held by another, would not have the charism of teaching infallibly.]

  4. JustaSinner says:

    I’ll toss some further musings in… what if Francis was a strict Orthodoxy guy? Really right and started to push TLM, push back against American democrat office holder’s that supported abortion. Boy would HE ever be called out by the Left!! Fr Jesse James Martin’s panties would be double up bunched!! The Fishwrappers would faint repeatedly from bad cases if the vapors!

  5. prayfatima says:

    It seems like the two are separate, Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome. We have probably just seen them together for so long but they don’t necessarily have to be. Peter was not in Rome when he was made pope, that’s proof that a Catholic pope doesn’t need to also be Bishop of Rome. So maybe Benedict knew that and is aware he is still Vicar of Christ. He may be afraid of something and doesn’t know what to do. Maybe he doesn’t know where he wants to live as Vicar of Christ, he may want to be Bishop of someplace else. Isn’t he smart? Can’t someone just ask him what he meant?

  6. GregB says:

    From a practical perspective who outside the pope could make definitive declarations as to all this? Just how far can you slice and dice things? Benedict resigned because he didn’t feel up to the task of cleaning up the Church. I have seen nothing to indicate that that situation has changed. Would a new conclave do any better job of picking a new pope than they did with Francis?

  7. I would like to offer another way to look at this that will probably be only a piece of the puzzle but may nonetheless be helpful. Jesus will provide for His Church, and He gave her His own authority. The election of a new Pope will always be morally and logically possible. What I mean there is that we’ll never get to a point where we can’t elect a new Pope ever again because all of the current cardinals are invalidly appointed and therefore no one can appoint new cardinals and therefore, no conclave is possible. In such a situation, either the cardinals must be considered valid, or the Church in her partly divine character must have the capability– somehow– of making provision for a new Pope. Keep in mind that bishops at some times and places were appointed by popular acclamation (sometimes against their will). The way we have been doing things is not the only possible way, though it may in fact be the ideal.

    In a truly difficult situation of rebuilding, it may well be that the remaining people of Rome select a Pope by which of multiple candidates gets the loudest applause after some moments of prayerful silence– or there may even be a single candidate who is affirmed by unanimous acclamation. It may even be messier than that; it could even get to a point at which someone simply grabs the reins of power as Captain Picard took command of the Stargazer and is simply recognized as Pope because he is doing the job and no one challenges him– a “common-law” Pope, perhaps? That’s sort of hard to imagine in today’s polarized world, but in a difficult situation, perhaps the faithful might be motivated to rally behind a reasonably stable, middle-of-the road bishop as Pope.

    When I used the phrase “morally and logically” I deliberately exclude the very real possibility that at some point a conclave may not be physically or realistically possible on account of war, disease, or persecution, as I just suggested. When those temporary conditions pass– and they may last a while– the Church will have the authority to hold a conclave or even to determine another suitable means of selecting a Pope. Jesus never guaranteed that any particular Pope would survive, nor even that a College of Cardinals would exist. He did not write canon law and hand it to Peter. He merely guaranteed the survival of the Church. The details could in fact change substantially if necessary. Regardless, selecting a new Pope will always be possible. We have to have that much faith in the Church that Jesus Christ founded.

  8. TonyO says:

    While I strongly support the obvious connection between being the bishop of the see of Rome and being the Vicar of Christ, I submit the following: the examples of Peter before he reached Rome, and of the Avignon popes, shows quite clearly that the connection is contingent, not essential to the office. Hence the Church could, if necessary, follow a different paradigm about the matter.

    For example, suppose that some future pope was traveling to a distant city, and Italy underwent a cataclysmic series of earthquakes and volcanoes, such that virtually all of the peninsula became submerged under the waters of the sea. The pope, with the cardinals who were traveling with him, and the cardinals in other cities, could then establish a new see that was (by new formal designation) the see of the Vicar of Christ. The pope certainly has the power to erect new sees, they do it with some regularity.

    Taking a page out of the Space Force and science fiction, the same scenario can be imagined some 500 years from now with the pope visiting a city on Mars, and the entire Earth being destroyed by a sun spot going crazy and ejecting a world-wrecking mass of plasma.

    I made these examples easy to see by having the then-reigning, certainly-valid pope away from “home” when home is completely destroyed such that it cannot be re-established. But even if he is at home at the time (and dies), the cardinals in the other sees around the world can do something similar, if needed; or the bishops. Because, as Fr. Z indicates repeatedly, the Church has the capacity to do so.

    [In one of Frank Herbert’s novels Rome is about to be nuked. A long-distance conclave is held.]

  9. Senor Quixana says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful exploration of the myriad ways this could play out.

    It is a testimony to the sad state of affairs when some of the faithful are embracing cloak and dagger theories as a sort of wishful thinking. We need help when “Is the pope Catholic” is no longer a punchline but an actual avenue of inquiry for some.

    All of these theories depend on Benedict’s meaning and intentions. As for me, I will apply a bit of Franciscan wisdom suggested by Friar William of Occam and interpret Benedict in the most straightforward way possible: He meant to quit the job in all of it’s aspects.

    I will wish no ill for Francis, but I have been praying for his successor for a long time now.

  10. Adelle Cecilia says:

    All very interesting and thought-provoking.

    But… what if Francis were to “retire” or “resign,” and neither had yet died?

    What if Benedict does die, & Francis takes that opportunity to resign? Would the vicarship, so to speak, transfer?
    Is it possible that such a well-oiled attack on the Church could be played out for a significant portion of time?

    [I cannot imagine that Francis would ever quit.]

  11. Geoffrey says:

    This is both an interesting and frightening discussion. As a Catholic monarchist with a great interest in titles and what they mean and signify, allow me to opine.

    The official titles of the pope are: “Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God”. (The title “Patriarch of the West” was retired by Benedict XVI in 2005.)

    As previously mentioned, the title “Pope” is neither official nor even exclusive to the “Pope of Rome”. Other unofficial titles include: “Roman Pontiff”, “father of princes and kings”, and “the ruler of the world”.

    And many forget that Benedict XVI’s official post-resignation style is: “His Holiness Benedict XVI, Roman Pontiff Emeritus or Pope Emeritus”.

    So now, if the titles / roles of “Vicar of Jesus Christ” and “Bishop of Rome” can be separated, which of the other official and unofficial titles could or would be similarly divided?

    For example, the titles of “Primate of Italy” and “Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province” would seem to be connected with that of “Bishop of Rome”.

    But is the title “Sovereign of Vatican City State” connected with the “Bishop of Rome” or “Vicar of Jesus Christ”? Meanwhile, the title of “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church” seems all-inclusive!

    And, notice that Benedict XVI’s official post-resignation titles are not based on any of the official titles of the papacy, as “pope” and “Roman Pontiff” are not official titles, but yet they are with the word “emeritus” attached to them.

    Again, both interesting and frightening!

  12. Mike says:

    I think the Fr. H’s “9/10ths of the law” thing has a lot of weight.

    I’m not well-read in these canonical matters, but see their importance.

    I sometimes go back and forth between “Benedict received some vision, locution, etc that asked him to step aside” to the more likely and mundane, “this holy, brilliant man was manipulated into stepping down, and, in the close up version, so to speak, he made a terrible mistake”. Either way, God’s in charge of history, and his Church, so time will wash a lot of this out, as Fr. Z says.

  13. Kathleen10 says:

    When our societies devolve into the tribal warfare into which we are being pushed, we’ll all be too busy finding food and trying to stay alive to care who the pope is or what he says. I’m a simple person and I would never pretend to know the mind of God but it’s impossible for me to imagine how confirming people in their sin is serving the Body of Christ or mankind. Fr. Z thank you so much for your detailed explanation and helpful analysis. Thank you for taking the time to do that.

  14. Dan says:

    it helps to put your comments in the correct thread.

    I have commented before and I will do so again, that while I am not a prophet I do play one on the internet. I think God in his mercy will allow these two men to die on the same day, or at least in close proximity so that there will be no doubt about the next conclave.

    Of course depending on who would be elected there could be those that would say it is not legitimate because Anti-Pope Francis appointed cardinals when he shouldn’t have and so the next pope would be elected by ineligible Cardinals and not be valid. but that is putting faith in politics not in God.

    If however the College of Cardinals is tainted then there couldn’t really be the election of another valid pope. Then we would get into the prophesy of St. Malachy who said the last pope would be Peter the Roman (ie. Bishop of Rome not Vicar of Christ) which happens to coincide with Francis. :-/ hmmmmm

  15. So, were Benedict XVI to survive Francis and the College of Cardinals went into conclave and re-elected Ratzinger pope – here’s the critical theological question: would he be Benedict XVI or Benedict XVII? Asking for a friend.

    [Interesting question. I suppose that, once elected, he would be able to chose whatever regnal name he desired. (Quo nomine vis vocari?) Maybe he would be Benedict XVI the Second… Benedict XVI². What signal would it send if he chose another name, such as Clement? I am reminded of the swag I made at the time of the resignation: HERE]

  16. The Astronomer says:

    Asking in all due charity, Father, as this has been quite the source of confuddlement to me. In 1996, Pope St. John Paul II issued his motu propio “Universi Dominici Gregis,” concerning the election of the Roman Pontiff. It has been made known since then that various actors behind the scenes loosely calling themselves the ‘St. Gallen Mafia,’ actively worked to ensure the election of our current Pope. This includes such Cardinals as (former) Cardinals McCarrick, Carlo Maria Martini, Godfried Danneels, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Achille Silvestrini, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann…etc. Per Ed Pentin at the NC Register on the launch of the late Cardinal Daneels’ official biography on September 24, 2015: “At the launch of the book in Brussels this week, the cardinal said he was part of a secret club of cardinals opposed to Pope Benedict XVI. He called it a “mafia” club that bore the name of St. Gallen. The group wanted a drastic reform of the Church, to make it “much more modern”, and for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to head it.

    Would this contradict the provisions of “Universi Dominici Gregis,” cited below?

    81. The Cardinal electors shall further abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind which could oblige them to give or deny their vote to a person or persons. If this were in fact done, even under oath, I decree that such a commitment shall be null and void and that no one shall be bound to observe it; and I hereby impose the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae upon those who violate this prohibition. It is not my intention however to forbid, during the period in which the See is vacant, the exchange of views concerning the election.

    82. I likewise forbid the Cardinals before the election to enter into any stipulations, committing themselves of common accord to a certain course of action should one of them be elevated to the Pontificate. These promises too, should any in fact be made, even under oath, I also declare null and void.

    83. With the same insistence shown by my Predecessors, I earnestly exhort the Cardinal electors not to allow themselves to be guided, in choosing the Pope, by friendship or aversion, or to be influenced by favour or personal relationships towards anyone, or to be constrained by the interference of persons in authority or by pressure groups, by the suggestions of the mass media, or by force, fear or the pursuit of popularity. Rather, having before their eyes solely the glory of God and the good of the Church, and having prayed for divine assistance, they shall give their vote to the person, even outside the College of Cardinals, who in their judgment is most suited to govern the universal Church in a fruitful and beneficial way.

    [The only point that needs to be addressed is that which is raised in UDG 81, that is, those who engaged in pacts, etc., about their votes incurred a latae sententiae excommunication. They clearly did that and they clearly incurred the excommunication! One wonders if they ever got it resolved… no, wait, the one they conspired to elect got elected. So, the idea is that if they were excommunicated, then the conclave was invalid. No. According can. 1331 someone who incurs a latae sententiae excommunication that remains occult, that is, it is not declared, can still validly place acts of governance. He is forbidden to, so the act of governance is illicit, but it is valid. If the excommunication is declared, made public, then the act of governance is invalid. In the case of Archbp. Lefebvre’s consecration of bishops – he incurred the excommunication latae sententiae but then the Congregation for Bishops also declared it. In the case of the Cardinal Electors in 2013 who conspired to get Bergoglio elected then their votes in the conclave were valid because the excommunication they incurred wasn’t declared.]

  17. adriennep says:

    It is horrible to think he has just been sitting around as Real Pope for the past nine years. Other Vatican watchers at the time said he was quite the hypochondriac. But it does haunt one to ask: Why doesn’t he just speak up? Another secret Vatican/China agreement perhaps?

    This is a tragic waste, for him and the world. And we will never know this side of heaven what is the real story. February 2013 was the last time this convert clung to everything coming from the Vatican. I miss him.

  18. “Some leave the unity of the Church for Orthodoxy or Sedevacantism in today’s situation. I believe those are foolish escapes into fantasy.”

    From a foolish escapee in Orthodox fantasyland: What is this RC unity of which you speak? How’s that working out for you? Orthodoxy, just like the ancient Church, is a collection of local churches united doctrinally, theologically, sacramentally. That’s the “unity of the Church.” Don’t mistake our administrative and organizational problems for real problems.

  19. hilltop says:

    FAther Sirico’s question is the one I awaited. At least it’s first part: what happens if/when Francis precedes Benedict XVI in death? Is there NEED for a conclave? Were there a conclave and Cupic (as but one example) were elected, would Francis II be willing to be limited to Bishop of Rome while Benedict XVI long endured as Vicar of Christ???

  20. William Tighe says:

    TonyO wrote:

    “While I strongly support the obvious connection between being the bishop of the see of Rome and being the Vicar of Christ, I submit the following: the examples of Peter before he reached Rome, and of the Avignon popes, shows quite clearly that the connection is contingent, not essential to the office.”

    I agree, in general, but we should not include “the Avignon popes,” for during the whole period of the papal residence in Avignon (1309-1367 and 1370-1377) these popes were styled “Bishop of Rome” and there were also Bishops of Avignon (different individuals) throughout the period (although on three occasions during the period the Pope/Bishop of Rome was also and at the same time Bishop of Avignon).

  21. TonyO says:

    William, I knew that the Avignon popes were still formally speaking the bishops of Rome. (I didn’t know they were also the bishops of Avignon, which speaks to a grave abuse, I think. So thanks for pointing that out.)

    I agree that Peter’s being bishop of Antioch was the more critical example. I guess what I was thinking – perhaps in a muddle – is that their stability of residence and curial machinery being not in Rome at all, not even sort-of, shows that these details are not essential being the Vicar of Christ. Their willingness to remain, more or less permanently, absentee bishops of Rome, illustrates a looseness in the connection of the papacy with Rome: a slight addition to the Antioch component.

  22. HumileVivarium says:

    Great post, Fr. Z. Thank you.

    Dr. Mazza wrote a very interesting post examining Joseph Ratzinger’s writings and understanding of sacred power (potestas sacra). That is, the difference between 1) Power of Order (potestas ordinis) and 2) Power of Jurisdiction (potestas iurisdictionis, also known as missio canonica, or potestas regiminis). The post is here:

    I would love to read your thoughts on Dr. Mazza’s post, if you’re looking for a subject of a follow-up post.

  23. says:

    The “rabbit hole” of “munus” in Benedict’s thinking is deeper and stranger even than what you have outlined Father. According to Msgr. Fredrik Hansen, Benedict doesn’t see the episcopal munus as an “office” granted by “jurisdiction” (which can be lost) so much as an “irrevocable” gift given when consecrated:

    The first current [of thought] emanates from…K. Rahner, J. Ratzinger and Y. Congar…They all support the view that potestas sacra comes from the sacrament of orders [potestas ordinis]. In the case of the potestas sacra of the Bishop they advocate its complete origin in episcopal consecration [potestas ordinis]…Further this position teaches that also the power of teaching and governance comes from episcopal ordination although its exercise must take place within hierarchical communion. The missio canonica [potestas iurisdictionis] as the juridical determination for the two latter powers [teaching and governance] renders this potestas sacra available for its exercise…The Primacy of jurisdiction of the Supreme Pontiff (cf. can. 331, PAE chap III, LG 18b)
    The second current of thought…makes a distinction between the episcopal consecration [potestas ordinis] on the one hand and the missio canonica on the other. The result is a position diametrically opposed to the first [Ratzinger’s] school of thought, holding that the power of governance comes from the missio canonica [potestas iurisdictionis] by which an office is entrusted…it allows an explanation of the difference between the Pope and the Bishops as regards jurisdiction…this second line of thought is echoed in the canonical doctrine found in the 1983 Code [of Canon Law] and the post-codal papal and curial documents, whereas the first [Ratzinger’s] is not: neither CIC 1983 nor Pastores gregis, or Apostolorum successores speak of power as the first current [Ratzinger’s] does… (Msgr. Frederik Hansen, The Unity and Threefold Expression of the Potestas Regiminis of the Diocesan Bishop, pp. 25-26.)

    If Benedict’s ecclesiology is wrong, then he committed substantial error in his resignation the way a bride or groom does when their understanding of matrimony is wrong. See my full article on the subject:
    PS. By the way Father, you’ve been reading too much King Leer, it’s Edmund, not Edward.

  24. says:

    Sorry, first quote from Hansen was cut off. Should read: “The Primacy of jurisdiction of the Supreme Pontiff (cf. can. 331, PAE chap III, LG 18b) becomes difficult to explain in relation to this current. On a sacramental level (the power of order) there is no difference between the Roman Pontiff and the other Bishops of the Church. The difference in jurisdiction comes from a non-sacramental source…The power he then acquires comes directly from Christ, not from the election, and not from the College of Cardinals.” And yes, it is Lear, not Leer. Mea culpa.

  25. Where does all this end? If Benedict has a faulty understanding of the nature of the papacy, why shouldn’t it be argued that at the time of his election as Pope, he lacked the proper intent to accept it, laboring under a misconception as to what he was actually accepting? In which case, he didn’t knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily accept, and therefore we haven’t had a true Pope since 2005, and Summorum Pontificum is a sham. Why shouldn’t we go there, if his faulty ecclesiology impairs the transmission of the papacy?

    [This would apply to resignations, not to acceptance.]

  26. Sol says:

    A lot of food for thought here. Two points that come to mind:

    1. The question of the two popes reminded me of a novel by Jean Raspail titled “Fisherman’s ring”), set in contemporary France and Italy, which discusses a historical lineage of alternative popes following antipope Benedict XIII and which includes secret conclaves to elect the “real pope” (Benedict XIII’s successor) , even if he isn’t recognized by the Church and nobody (save for the select few who meet for the conclaves) even knows he exists.

    2. In relation to Benedict’s resignation and the separation of munus and ministerium (both are extremely important questions to be sure), I think it’s also good to look at the issue with some perspective – it wasn’t until approx. the XII century that the office of the Pope gradually started to be recognized recognized as that of the supreme pontiff (in the sense we know it today) . For the first 12 centuries of Christianity’s existence, the pope was one of the five patriarchs and certainly could not realistically lay claim (although many popes did, of course) to be the ruler of the universal Church. For the most part, though, the reality on the ground was that the Pope was a ruler in what later became known as the Papal States but, as shown for example by St Gregory the Great’s correspondence, even in Italy papal authority did not go unquestioned by his own subjects, to say nothing of later challenges to Petrine primacy (the investiture conflict, the Avignon debacle etc.)

  27. Hb says:

    Thank you Father. This is a very thought provoking presentation and has given me much about whichch to think. I agree with you regardless of whatever B XVI intended. All will be well

  28. PostCatholic says:

    So, if hypothetically Francis isn’t Pope, how many living Archbishops of Washington are there? One? Two? Three because the Pope was the Pope and didn’t laicize the first (pederast) one to resign in disgrace? Am I thinking of this wrongly and the problem does not apply to other bishops and their resignations? Sincere questions. I enjoyed the thoroughness of this post.

  29. paultdale says:

    Brother Bugnolo, your fellow American has answered your post. Here:-


  30. JakeMC says:

    First of all, a very important detail that I never saw in any news report before this is the fact that Pope Benedict had had a stroke. Apparently it was a mild one, because, at the time, he didn’t appear to be impaired in any way except by simple aging. Knowing, as many people do, that having had one stroke leaves one prone to another, which could possibly render him non compos, he probably decided to tender his resignation while he was still of sound mind.
    What do we do if Pope Francis really does forbid the Usus Antiquior? Does the lack of moral authority you mentioned in a previous post excuse those who persist with the TLM? That’s a thorny question I don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole, because I simply don’t have the knowledge to address it. The only possible solution I can come to is a bit of advice the late Fr. John O’Connor gave me many years ago: Pray the Rosary. Turn to Our Lady for guidance. She will never lead you astray.


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