William Kilpatrick is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His books include Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press), What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Press), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad.
There has been much speculation in Rome lately that Pope Francis will resign. He is 85, requires a wheelchair because of a bad knee, is missing part of one lung due to a surgery when he was young, and recently underwent major surgery to have part of his colon removed.
Who might replace him? At this point, it seems likely that his successor would be someone like Francis—someone who would carry on his program of “modernizing” the Church. This probability is based on the fact that Francis has appointed most of the men who would elect his successor.
In political terms, Francis has “stacked” the College of Cardinals. Although some of the Cardinals were appointed by Pope Benedict XVI and some by John Paul II, many of these would be over 80—the cut-off age for voting. Thus, a very solid majority of the voting Cardinals will owe their lofty positions to Francis—a man who has been dubbed the “political pope.”
The next pope will be made in the mold of Francis and the Church will continue on its modernizing path. At any rate, that seems to be the most likely scenario.
But there is possible hitch. And it’s a major one.
As I pointed out in a previous piece, a small but growing number of Catholics contend that the election of Francis was invalid. If true, that means he is not the pope. And, if he is not the pope, some argue, then his appointments would also be invalid, and the pro-Francis majority in the College of Cardinals would disappear.
But if Francis is not the pope, who is?
Those who deny the validity of Francis’s election say that Benedict is still the pope. They maintain that Benedict’s resignation was invalid. Benedict, they say, attempted a partial resignation: he intended to relinquish the ministerial (or administrative) duties of the papacy but not the office of pope. However, according to proponents of the invalid resignation theory, there is no provision in Canon Law or in Catholic doctrine for such a bifurcation of the papacy. The papacy, they say, is an all-or-nothing proposition. Hence, Benedict was guilty of a substantial error. And hence his resignation was invalid.
This may sound confusing and, indeed, many people did find Benedict’s drawn-out resignation speech to be quite confusing. It’s less confusing if one knows that before his election to the papacy, Benedict had for decades been part of a discussion among modernist theologians of ways to restructure the papacy.
According to the theory, Benedict seems to have concluded that he could resign his “active” role in the papacy while retaining a passive or contemplative role. He seems to have said as much in a papal audience given two weeks after his resignation:
There can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life… but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. 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.
Consequently, Benedict remains to this day within the Vatican walls, wears a white papal cassock, gives the papal blessing, and signs letters as though he were still pope.
For an analogy, think of a U.S. president who resigns the presidency, yet remains in the White House, asks to be called “Mister President,” and stamps his letters with the presidential seal.
That, of course, would strike most people as a stupid thing to do. And that’s exactly how critics of Benedict’s resignation view the matter: his partial resignation, they maintain, was a stupid mistake.
On the other hand, defenders of the resignation’s validity point out that Benedict is a brilliant scholar who has written penetrating yet accessible books on numerous subjects. He is unlikely, they say, to have botched his own resignation.
This is the view of Michael Voris, the head of Church Militant—a popular website that has a large following among traditional Catholics. Voris contends that Benedict would be one of the most evil men in history to have consciously created such a confusing situation, and to have done nothing to rectify it once the destructive result (the election of Francis) became apparent.
But once again, this argument assumes that Benedict is simply too smart to have botched his resignation: therefore, the resignation must have been valid, the election of Francis must also have been valid and, like it or not, we are stuck with Francis (whom Voris views as one of the worst popes ever).
The trouble with this argument is that very smart people can and do make very stupid mistakes. Over-thinking a problem or a proposition can sometimes cause intellectuals to lose contact with common sense. The phrases “too smart by half” and “too smart for his own good” capture this all-too-common experience.
But if Benedict’s resignation was invalid and if he is still the pope, what are the practical implications if Francis should resign?
That’s difficult to say. It depends on a number of variables. The most important consideration is whether or not Benedict acknowledges that his resignation was invalid and reasserts his prerogatives as pope. If he doesn’t, then we can probably look forward to the election of Pope Francis II or, perhaps, Pope Permissive I (although it could be argued that we already have a Pope Permissive).
On the other hand, if Benedict switches from a passive role to an active one and reasserts his primacy, then we can expect that all hell will break loose. Perhaps a defector from the Francis camp will reveal the skeletons in the closet (was the election of Francis rigged as some have claimed?) Perhaps a sufficient number of bishops and cardinals will rally to Benedict’s side. Or perhaps the party of Francis will declare Benedict to be mentally incompetent, seal him away from nosy reporters, and assure the world that he is receiving the best possible psychiatric attention.
It’s hard to say what might happen. And for many it would be an almost unthinkable situation. Nevertheless, Catholics and non-Catholics alike need to start thinking about it.
It would be presumptive to speculate too much on how the Almighty views the matter, but for those who look for signs and portents it’s instructive to note that hours after Benedict announced his resignation, the dome of St. Peter’s was struck by two spectacular bolts of lightning.
Note: For a defense of Francis’s election from a traditional Catholic point of view, see this article by Bishop Athanasius Schneider.