Benedict XVI: the resignation

Benedict XVI: exhausted

With the Catholic Church engulfed in crisis, Vatican-watcher, John Trungove, writes on the state of the Papacy and the College of Cardinals. Part I of a series.

Recent controversies over the performance of Pope Francis have raised occasional questions about whether the papacy was actually vacant at the time of the Conclave which elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope on 13 March 2013.

While arguing that Pope Benedict’s resignation was in fact valid, this article addresses some elements in the discussion about the events that led Pope Benedict XVI to announce his resignation to the cardinals on 11 February 2013.


The first question concerns the legality of a papal resignation. Without reaching into the depths of history to dissect particularly unusual examples (a hermit dragooned into the Chair of Peter after a long interregnum and a deadlocked conclave; or resignations and depositions to resolve the Great Schism), the conditions operating in 2013 were very much modern and governed by laws set down for the Church of today.

The Catholic Church’s “canon law” (can. 332, n. 2) declares that a Pope may resign his office, so long as his decision is “made freely and properly manifested”. It is not required that the resignation be accepted by anyone.

The proper manifestation of Pope Benedict’s resignation is hardly in doubt. The Pontiff made the announcement, in Latin, at a consistory of Cardinals. The occasion and the announcement were clothed in perfect regularity.

Some have questioned whether the Pope’s decision to resign was truly made freely. In modern jargon, did he jump or was he pushed?

Strange duress

The “Vatileaks” scandal of 2012 has been cited as having placed improper and undue pressure on Benedict, thus seemingly tainting his decision. Similarly, the report of the Commission of Cardinals, delivered to Benedict in December 2012, dealing with the recent scandal, with corruption in the Curia and with the now infamous allegations about an influential “gay mafia” within the Vatican, has been argued as having convinced the Pope that he could not continue in his office.

Going beyond “Vatileaks”, some outlandish theories have been aired in fringe Catholic media about the papal resignation: about alleged external pressure from odd quarters such as a German bank closing down Vatican City ATMs prior to the resignation announcement or an Obama/Clinton Democratic plot to pave the way for a liberal papacy. On the evidence available to us, these allegations simply don’t hold water.

The most credible evidence that we have to rely upon is the words of Benedict himself. He has explained how a visit to Mexico and Cuba in March 2012 had drained him, to the extent that he had been given medical advice that he could not fly over the Atlantic again. This is consistent with my own observations – made with the aid of a telephoto lens, of Benedict while presiding over Mass in St Peter’s Piazza on 28 September 2011. Benedict looked completely exhausted. The Pope had returned to Rome only the previous day after a particularly testing visit to Germany.


Setting aside the obvious health issues, the real question is whether the demands on Benedict’s strength or some internal Vatican problem effectively forced his hand. On this, Benedict is emphatic. He has insisted that he did not submit to coercion and that one is not permitted to depart such an office if one “is running away”.

“One can only turn away when no one had demanded it. And no one demanded it of me during my time as Pope. No one.”

These words appear in Last Testament, a book-length interview with the retired pontiff conducted by Peter Seewald in May 2016. The extensive discussion of the papal resignation in this book should serve as a primary and authoritative source for anyone wishing to understand Benedict’s motives.

The Seewald interview was not the first occasion that the former Pope had stood by his decision and defended its voluntary nature. He wrote to the journal Vatican Insider in 2014, stressing that there was “absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation”. Pope Benedict’s personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gänswein, who continues in that role, maintained in early 2015 that Benedict remains “convinced that the decision he took and communicated was right”.

It’s easy to say with hindsight that the resignation was a gigantic mistake and that we are now suffering its consequences, but Benedict did not “flee the wolves” as some have alleged.

Dan Brown stuff

Of course, for the most ardent conspiracy theorists, no denial, no matter how emphatic, will convince them and they will cite it as Benedict still acting under duress. One can only answer minds, excited by Dan Brownish scenarios, with the picture of Benedict XVI, large beer stein in hand, happily celebrating his 90th birthday in April 2017, alongside his older brother Fr Georg Ratzinger and Monsignor Gänswein! Duress indeed?

A Pope coerced into resigning would not be writing letters to Vaticanista journals, giving wide ranging interviews to biographers, sending messages to the funerals of beloved cardinals or having his private secretary convey messages to journalists or (especially) speak controversially to an audience gathered recently in Rome to promote the Italian edition of Rod Dreher’s prophetic work The Benedict Option. On the contrary, a miserable victim of duress from earthly powers and their Vatican agents would be totally silenced and a true “prisoner in the Vatican”.

It is significant that, in over five years since the Papal resignation, no one has come forward with any credible evidence of improper pressure on the Pope to step aside. Of even more significance is the fact that the College of Cardinals unanimously accepted the resignation and acknowledged that the Apostolic See had been vacated. This includes all those Cardinals who now have grievances against the performance of Benedict’s successor.

The College confirms

The only body with the power to determine whether there was any irregularity surrounding the Papal resignation was the College of Cardinals itself as constituted in February and March 2013. No one from this body, however unhappy some of them were with Benedict for resigning, raised any public objection at the time.

The time to challenge the validity of Benedict’s resignation would have been in the period between his announcement and the commencement of the subsequent conclave. That opportunity has long since passed.

That Joseph Ratzinger the man was under great strain, particularly in relation to his health, is incontrovertible. That this saintly man, as Pope Benedict XVI, had the courage to lay aside his burden, trusting in the ability of the Sacred College to choose a worthy successor, should be accepted without demur, regardless of the actual choice made and the quality of the pontificate that has followed.

After following Cardinal Ratzinger’s and then Pope Benedict’s career since 1978, I prefer his testimony to that either of his detractors or of the conspiracy theorists.

We could easily say with hindsight that the resignation was a gigantic mistake and that we are now suffering its consequences, but I am sure that Benedict himself did not “flee the wolves” as some have alleged. Those wishing to pursue a radical moral and theological agenda, the St Gallen Mafia and other elements within the Church and Curia, were merely awaiting their opportunity which could have come just as easily with Benedict’s death as with his decision to step down.

Next up Francis election: end-to-end legit

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