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Some distinctly non-canonical musings on the status of an ex-pope

February 26, 2013

Aside from the resignation itself—the canonical legality of which is incontestable—Pope Benedict’s startling decision to leave office has occasioned much confusion in Rome and around the Catholic world. The simple fact is that the Catholic Church, at every level, has virtually no experience in dealing with ex-popes.

Beyond the barest of canonical points (c. 332 § 2), almost everything about Benedict’s future—his status under law (canonical and international), title(s), appropriate dress, relations with peers (assuming he has any), and so on and so on and so on—must be fashioned practically from scratch. One should not assume that any announcements being made about Benedict’s future are based on the authority of some arcane-but-accessible protocol tome for dealing with ex-popes, because there is no such tome. We’re making most of this up as we go.

We Catholics like order. We like knowing what the rules are (even Catholics who don’t like the rules still like knowing what the rules are, so they have a target for their ire); we like thinking that at least those in charge know what all the rules are, even if we don’t know and even if they are charmingly or irritatingly inept at announcing them.

Now, by and large, that Catholic nomian attitude is sound—the Church does have rules, Church leaders generally know what those rules are, and for the most part, other folks can find out what those rules are and impress still others with their discoveries.

But not this time. The rules say only, we can have an ex-pope. Period.

History’s not much help either. Setting aside some first millennium episodes that are almost too bizarre for words, the last pope to resign (Gregory XII) had been elected and tried to govern under conditions that would shock the conscience today. The only other pope to resign (Celestine V) was promptly arrested and died in prison. None of this is remotely useful for predicting Benedict’s future.

But that’s my point: if law says next to nothing about the status of an ex-pope, and if history teaches us little of value in regard to dealing with an ex-pope, then, pretty much everything about an ex-pope, right down to the color of his shoes, needs to be worked out, and likely enough, will need to be re-worked at least a couple of times till we get it right. Ish.

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