Lex Cordis Caritas - The law of the heart is Love

by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Since Pope Benedict's surprise announcement earlier this month, there has been much discussion about what to call a pope who steps down from office. The confusion is understandable since a pope has not left office alive for almost 600 years. It might even be said that a pope has never stepped down quite under these circumstances in the 2,000 year history of the church.

What seems to have been overlooked so far in these discussions is that the word "pope" does not appear in the Code of Canon Law. Canon 331 defines the office held by the pope, from which we can draw several titles: Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, Head of the College of Bishops, Vicar of Christ, and Pastor of the Universal Church. Other canons give us the title most commonly used for the Petrine office throughout the Code of Canon Law: "Roman Pontiff." The title "Supreme Pontiff" is also used frequently in the Code.

How then are we to understand the word "pope?" It is an honorific, even a term of endearment ("Papa" in Italian). It is not the title of an ecclesiastical office. We make this distinction all the time. We still call a priest by the honorific "Father" even after he has resigned from the office of pastor. Having lived in Italy for three and a half years when I was studying canon law, and having a sense of the culture, I have a feeling the Italians will continue to call Pope Benedict "Papa Benedetto" even after he leaves office as the Bishop of Rome. So I don't think people will have a hard time wrapping their minds around having a pope who is no longer the Roman Pontiff, Bishop of Rome, etc. Certainly, in direct address, one would never address him as anything but, "Your Holiness."

Of course, it would be best to know what Pope Benedict himself wants to be called after Feb. 28 and I hope he will tell us. We can get some idea of that from the name under which his books about Jesus of Nazareth have been published: "Joseph Ratzinger — Pope Benedict XVI." In his forward to the first volume, he made it clear that "this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but solely an expression of my personal search 'for the face of the Lord' (Cf. Ps 27:8)." So, writing in his personal capacity and not as Supreme Pontiff, he called himself, "Joseph Ratzinger – Pope Benedict XVI."

Some have suggested that he should return to being "Cardinal Ratzinger." That does not seem correct. If he had resigned before reaching the age of 80, after which a cardinal may no longer vote in a papal conclave, I do not think he would have, should have or could have donned a red cassock and entered the conclave in the Sistine Chapel to vote for his successor.

Instead, at 8 p.m. Rome time on Feb. 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI will have a new identity to which we will have to become accustomed: His Holiness, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, former Roman/Supreme Pontiff, Bishop Emeritus of Rome.

There has also been some discussion about whether Pope Benedict "renounced," "resigned" or "abdicated" the office of Roman Pontiff. The official English translation of the Code of Canon Law translates "renuntiatio" in canon 332, §2 as "resignation."

Accordingly, I believe "resign" is a more accurate translation in this context than "renounce" and certainly not "abdicate" (a term used by royalty when a monarch steps down from the throne). It does seem odd that someone could resign without submitting that resignation to anyone, so the canon specifically addresses that question by saying that for validity it is required that the resignation must be "made freely and properly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone."

Although "renounce" has been used even in the Holy See's translation of his announcement and letter of resignation, I think that "renounce" is a literal but not necessarily accurate translation of "renuntio" in this context. Since the pope wrote and spoke in Latin, it is a question of translation. Parallel passages in canon law regarding bishops and pastors stepping down from office use the word "renuntiatio," but we never speak of a bishop sending in his letter of "renunciation" when he turns 75 or a pastor "renouncing" his office. So my interpretation as a canon lawyer is that "resignation" is the proper translation of "renuntiatio" in this context.

These observations are my humble canonical opinions and interpretations, so I willingly defer to more learned experts in these matters. Of course, this could all become moot if the Holy Father tells us clearly his wishes. In any event, I pray for Pope Benedict XVI during this time of transition and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the election of his successor.

May God give us this grace. Amen.