Christopher A Ferrara POSTED: 2/11/13 REMNANT COLUMNIST, New Jersey ______________________
(www.RemnantNewspaper.com) It has been my great privilege to write for this venerable journal regarding some of the most important events in recent Church history, including the election of Pope Benedict XVI, which Michael Matt and I were fortunate enough to witness in Rome itself beneath the very balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica. But how does one gather his wits on such short notice to offer a useful assessment of an event as epochal as the abdication of a Roman Pontiff, and in particular this Pontiff, whose dramatic gestures have favorably altered the landscape of our devastated ecclesial commonwealth in ways we could only hope for during the long and increasingly ruinous pontificate of John Paul “the Great.”
Two questions immediately present themselves: Can a Pope resign, that is, abdicate, and why did Pope Benedict do so? The first is easily answered, at least technically. As the Catholic Encyclopedia observes: “Like every other ecclesiastical dignity, the papal throne may also be resigned.” Indeed, “[t]he reasons which make it lawful for a bishop to abdicate his see, such as the necessity or utility of his particular church, or the salvation of his own soul, apply in a stronger manner to the one who governs the universal church.” And while there is no higher earthly authority to which a Pope can tender his resignation, “he himself by the papal power can dissolve the spiritual marriage between himself and the Roman Church.” We can dispense by anticipation with any contrary canonical arguments we can expect hear from the amateur canonists of the Internet. None other than Pope Boniface VIII, that great exemplar of the papal supremacy, decreed the inherent capacity of a Pope to resign his own office, which decree is codified in the Corpus Juris Canonici (Cap. Quoniam I, de renun., in 6).
So, technically and logically at least a Pope has the capacity to renounce his own office as Vicar of Christ. And the abdication of a Pope, while exceedingly rare, is not unprecedented. There are several examples, including the well-known abdication of Pope Celestine V in 1294. One case is particularly striking: Pope Benedict IX (1033-44), who “had long caused scandal to the Church by his disorderly life, freely renounced the pontificate and took the habit of a monk,” to be succeeded by Clement II. (Benedict IX attempted to reclaim the papal throne after Clement’s death, but evidently failed in the endeavor).
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