You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan

On May 20, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the Papal Household and longtime secretary to Benedict XVI, made some remarks at the presentation of a book about Benedict’s pontificate. Edward Pentin reports that Archbishop Gänswein’s remarks included a discussion of the factors that led to Benedict’s abdication and a discussion of the precise effect of Benedict’s abdication. In short, Archbishop Gänswein contends that Benedict continues to exercise some form of the Petrine ministry.

In particular, Pentin reports:

Drawing on the Latin words “munus petrinum” — “Petrine ministry” — Gänswein pointed out the word “munus” has many meanings such as “service, duty, guide or gift”. He said that “before and after his resignation” Benedict has viewed his task as “participation in such a ‘Petrine ministry’.

“He left the Papal Throne and yet, with the step he took on 11 February 2013, he has not abandoned this ministry,” Gänswein explained, something “quite impossible after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005.”

Instead, he said, “he has built a personal office with a collegial and synodal dimension, almost a communal ministry, as if he had wanted to reiterate once again the invitation contained in the motto that the then-Joseph Ratzinger had as Archbishop of Munich and Freising and naturally maintained as Bishop of Rome: “cooperatores veritatis”, which means ‘co-workers of the truth’.”

Archbishop Gänswein pointed out that the motto is not in the singular but in the plural, and taken from the Third Letter of John, in which it is written in verse 8: “We must welcome these people to become co-workers for the truth”.

He therefore stressed that since Francis’ election, there are not “two popes, but de facto an expanded ministry — with an active member and a contemplative member.” He added that this is why Benedict XVI “has not given up his name”, unlike Pope Celestine V who reverted to his name Pietro da Marrone, “nor the white cassock.”

(Emphasis supplied and slightly reformatted.)

Now, it must be noted that Archbishop Gänswein, while a close collaborator and friend of Benedict’s, is not Benedict. However, it seems almost unbelievable to us that Archbishop Gänswein would make remarks like this without discussing them beforehand with Benedict. He is no fool, and he is undoubtedly aware that there is a general perception that he is extremely close to the Pope Emeritus. Thus, while there is no guarantee that Archbishop Gänswein’s comments reflect Benedict’s thinking, it is difficult to imagine that Gänswein would make the statements if he thought that they were wholly incompatible with Benedict’s view of his role in the Church.

And what Archbishop Gänswein has said is extraordinary. An expanded papal ministry “with an active member and a contemplative member”? What does that mean? Certainly we depart quickly for the realm of speculation and supposition, since this idea has not, to our knowledge, ever been worked out in a rigorous manner. (If you are aware of some treatment of this subject, please do not hesitate to contact us—we will happily post your correspondence with attribution.) A little speculation very quickly shows the inherent difficulties in such an idea.

Could the “contemplative member” of the papacy reverse himself and decide to take a more active role again? Benedict has so far decided to conduct himself as the cloistered monk of Mater Ecclesiae, praying silently on behalf of the Church, but there is no law requiring that he do so and there is certainly no guarantee that “Paul VII” would make the same decision after abdicating. After a few years, Contemplative Pope Paul VII might decide that his Active successor, “Clement XV,” was making a dreadful mess of things, and  Paul might try to put things back in order publicly. Or, after years of contemplation and prayer regarding a theological question confronting the Church, Paul VII might attempt to invoke the charism of infallibility and define, in an act of the extraordinary papal magisterium, a dogma that Clement XV refused to define. After all a contemplative pope is still somehow the pope! These are, of course, extreme—silly, even—examples, but when you start talking about expanding the Petrine ministry, you have to start talking about the limits of each mode of expression of that ministry.

But it turns out that there has been some speculation about this exact issue since 2013. In 2014, Vittorio Messori, a distinguished Italian Vaticanist, took up this question in an article that was translated by Rorate Caeli. Furthermore, Antonio Socci has been grappling with these issues for some time. At any rate, Messori observed, relying on a report by an eminent canonist,

That is to say, we discover, that Benedict XVI did not intend to renounce the munus petrinus, nor the office, or the duties, i.e. which Christ Himself attributed to the Head of the Apostles and which has been passed on to his successors. The Pope intended to renounce only the ministerium, which is the exercise and concrete administration of that office. In the formula employed by Benedict, primarily, there is a distinction between the munus, the papal office, and the execution, that is the active exercise of the office itself: but the executio is twofold: there is the governmental aspect which is exercised agendo et loquendo – working and teaching; but there is also the spiritual aspect, no less important, which is exercised orando et patendo – praying and suffering. It is that which would be behind Benedict XVI’s words : “I do not return to private life […] 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.” “Enclosure” here would not be meant only in the sense of a geographical place, where one lives, but also a theological “place.”
Here then is the reason for his choice, unexpected and innovative, to have himself called “Pope Emeritus.” A bishop remains a bishop when age or sickness obliges him to leave the government of his diocese and so retires to pray for it. More so, for the Bishop of Rome, to whom the munus, the office, and the duties of Peter have been conferred once and for all, for all eternity, by the Holy Ghost, using the cardinals in conclave only as instruments. Here we have the reason for his decision to wear the white cassock, even though bereft of the signs of active government. Here is the reason for his will to stay near the relics of the Head of the Apostles, venerated in the great basilica.

To cite Professor Violi: “Benedict XVI divested himself of all the power of government and command inherent in his office, without however, abandoning his service to the Church: this continues through the exercise of the spiritual dimension of the pontifical munus entrusted to him. This he did not intend renouncing. He renounced not his duties, which are, irrevocable, but the concrete execution of them.” Is it perhaps for this that Francis seems not to be fond of calling himself “Pope” aware as he is of sharing the pontifical munus, at least in the spiritual dimension, with Benedict?

(Emphasis supplied.) Remember what Archbishop Gänswein said again:

Drawing on the Latin words “munus petrinum” — “Petrine ministry” — Gänswein pointed out the word “munus” has many meanings such as “service, duty, guide or gift”. He said that “before and after his resignation” Benedict has viewed his task as “participation in such a ‘Petrine ministry’.

“He left the Papal Throne and yet, with the step he took on 11 February 2013, he has not abandoned this ministry,” Gänswein explained, something “quite impossible after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005.”


He therefore stressed that since Francis’ election, there are not “two popes, but de facto an expanded ministry — with an active member and a contemplative member.” He added that this is why Benedict XVI “has not given up his name”, unlike Pope Celestine V who reverted to his name Pietro da Marrone, “nor the white cassock.”

(Emphasis supplied.) One need not speculate too wildly to get from Gänswein’s position to Messori’s position. Indeed, one could see Gänswein’s argument as, essentially, a confirmation of the position that Benedict resigned the active exercise of the papacy, leaving that to Francis.

But the consistent tradition of the Church of Rome has been to have one pope at a time. To say nothing of the fact, well attested in Holy Scripture, that Our Lord conferred upon Peter an unique ministry (cf. Pastor aeternus ch. 2). Once upon a time, Cardinal Ratzinger would not have found this to be an exceptional proposition. Indeed, it is worth quoting that document, The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church at some length here:

“First Simon, who is called Peter”. With this significant emphasis on the primacy of Simon Peter, St Matthew inserts in his Gospel the list of the Twelve Apostles, which also begins with the name of Simon in the other two synoptic Gospels and in Acts. This list, which has great evidential force, and other Gospel passages show clearly and simply that the New Testament canon received what Christ said about Peter and his role in the group of the Twelve. Thus, in the early Christian communities, as later throughout the Church, the image of Peter remained fixed as that of the Apostle who, despite his human weakness, was expressly assigned by Christ to the first place among the Twelve and was called to exercise a distinctive, specific task in the Church. He is the rock on which Christ will build his Church; he is the one, after he has been converted, whose faith will not fail and who will strengthen his brethren; lastly, he is the Shepherd who will lead the whole community of the Lord’s disciples.

In Peter’s person, mission and ministry, in his presence and death in Rome attested by the most ancient literary and archaeological tradition – the Church sees a deeper reality essentially related to her own mystery of communion and salvation: “Ubi Petrus, ibi ergo Ecclesia“. From the beginning and with increasing clarity, the Church has understood that, just as there is a succession of the Apostles in the ministry of Bishops, so too the ministry of unity entrusted to Peter belongs to the permanent structure of Christ’s Church and that this succession is established in the see of his martyrdom.

On the basis of the New Testament witness, the Catholic Church teaches, as a doctrine of faith, that the Bishop of Rome is the Successor of Peter in his primatial service in the universal Church; this succession explains the preeminence of the Church of Rome, enriched also by the preaching and martyrdom of St Paul.

In the divine plan for the primacy as “the office that was given individually by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be handed on to his successors”, we already see the purpose of the Petrine charism, i.e., “the unity of faith and communion” of all believers. The Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity both of the Bishops and of the multitude of the faithful” and therefore he has a specific ministerial grace for serving that unity of faith and communion which is necessary for the Church to fulfil her saving mission.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Everything in this traditional understanding of the papacy, founded upon Scripture and tradition, points toward the conclusion that the Petrine office is a singular office. It was conferred uniquely on Peter and, as a visible sign of unity, the Petrine office is filled by one person at a time.

The idea of a division in the Petrine office stands this framework on its head. First of all, it immediately contradicts the fact that the office was conferred uniquely on Peter and his successors. But that’s obvious. What is, perhaps, less immediately obvious is the fact that the split papacy undermines seriously the Petrine office as a visible sign of unity. The whole point is that there is one successor of Peter, “whose faith will not fail and who will strengthen his brethren; […] who will lead the whole community of the Lord’s disciples.” As soon as you introduce another member of the ministry, you obliterate this unity. The faithful have a choice, and choice necessarily implies disunity. (We have seen this already, frankly, though perhaps in a different way.) It seems to us that one must argue long and hard to get around the conclusion that there is one pope at a time.

We mention it in passing, but if the principle is that there is one pope at a time is divinely revealed or necessarily logically connected with what is divinely revealed, then we begin to arrive at serious difficulties if one contends that Benedict retains some portion of the Petrine office. Indeed, we begin to approach, fairly quickly, a very unpleasant conclusion about who the pope has been these past several years.


One need not actually delve into these depths of speculation. One need not approach any unpleasant conclusions. One can resolve the matter very simply by saying that, when Benedict resigned, he resigned. His life after resignation may well have looked different than Peter Celestine’s, but his resignation was no less effective. One may wish that he had returned to seclusion in a Bavarian monastery as “Bishop Joseph Ratzinger.” However, it would be hugely difficult to have a world figure like Benedict living outside of the Vatican, where arrangements for his security and comfort would be exponentially harder to implement. But turning aside from practical considerations, it is perhaps the more reasonable position to take that, notwithstanding Archbishop Gänswein’s views in 2016, when Benedict left the papacy in 2013, he left the papacy. Of course, it is understandable that Archbishop Gänswein would attempt to fit this situation into existing structures; however, it seems to us that it is perfectly acceptable to say (1) that a situation is unprecedented and (2) that everyone is still trying to figure out where to go from here.