“The status of pope emeritus is not defined in canon law”

The cross : What are the rules governing the status of pope emeritus today?

Valerio Gigliotti: It constitutes an absolute novelty, introduced by Pope Benedict XVI with its renunciation on February 11, 2013. The rules that frame it are not currently defined by canon law.

Benedict XVI, at the time of his renunciation, defined his own rules: he took the title of “Pope Emeritus” or “Roman Pontiff Emeritus”, and the coat of arms, the pontifical name and the appellation which, like that of the reigning Pope can be “Holy Father” or “His Holiness”, remained unchanged. The pope emeritus had chosen to reside “within the precincts of Saint-Pierre”at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, in the Vatican.

Does the status of pope emeritus need to be clarified?

VG : There is no canonical document detailing the status of pope emeritus. I believe that it is extremely important to codify the papal renunciation, regulated in the only canon 332 § 2 of the code of canon law – which takes up a very poor norm, almost identical to that inserted by Boniface VIII, in 1298, immediately after the Waiver of Celestin V.

Pope Francis himself, shortly after his predecessor’s resignation, had declared that the latter had “open a door (…) institutional, not exceptional”. This reflection on a more precise statute is carried out by a group of canonists and historians with whom I work, in order to suggest proposals as much on the procedure of renunciation as on the statute of the pope emeritus.

More practically, should the pope emeritus renounce the white habit and other symbols of the papacy?

VG : Benedict XVI had chosen to keep the white cassock, but without the cape and the belt. He abandoned the fisherman’s ring for the episcopal ring. Also, the pope emeritus no longer wore other papal insignia during the liturgy, such as the pallium.

The renouncing pope therefore sets the contours of his own status…

VG : This point is particularly delicate, and it is on this theme that a debate has opened. It should be emphasized that, the pope having no hierarchical superior, he can only freely renounce his office. As long as he has not renounced, he remains the supreme legislator of the Church, and it is therefore up to him to modify its norms. Benedict XVI chose this type of status for the figure of pope emeritus, but the current pope could modify the contours if he so wished.

Is there a rule imposing silence on the pope who renounces?

VG : This was one of the most discussed themes after the resignation of Benedict XVI and also one of the major fears linked to the presence of a pope emeritus living alongside the reigning pope. There is no norm imposing silence on the pope emeritus. It is therefore above all a question of an evaluation of opportunity: it is necessary to distinguish between what the pope pronounces in the exercise of his ministry and what he expresses in a personal capacity.

Obviously, the pope who renounced the ministry no longer expresses himself as an authority of the Church. However, I do not believe that it can be denied that he remains free to share personal opinions. This is what Joseph Ratzinger did – moreover very rarely – during the nine years that followed the renunciation.

Are there other avenues for reflection on the status of pope emeritus?

VG : Benedict XVI’s choice of renunciation represented an important moment in his Petrine ministry, since he completed it in a way. By instituting the figure of the pope emeritus, he wanted to reconnect with a centuries-old tradition in the Catholic Church, that is to say a mystical tradition, which coexists with legal power.

Now, it is difficult to say what will be the orientations of Francis and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, which I believe should be involved in this reflection. The new and unprecedented gesture of Benedict XVI will remain indelible in history and he confirmed, here too, his own theological line of “reform in continuity”.


Thousands of faithful gathered in front of the body of Benedict XVI

According to figures published Tuesday, January 3 at midday by the Vatican Gendarmerie, more than 90,000 people had gone to St. Peter’s Basilica to pay their last respects to Benedict XVI. Tuesday, however, the faithful were less likely to gather than the day before. The remains of the pope emeritus will be exposed in the basilica until the funeral scheduled for Thursday, January 5. The celebration will be presided over by Pope Francis.


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