At the end of this month, the office of the Bishop of Rome will be vacant. Pope Benedict XVI will abdicate his position as leader of the Catholic Church and as Vatican head-of-state on February 28. The last Pope that resigned by means other than death was Pope Gregory XII in 1415 C.E., and the last one to do so voluntarily was Pope Celestine V in 1294. This leaves many technical questions left hanging. Why did the pope resign? Where will he live? Will the election of a new pope go on as usual? Will he go back to being called Joseph? Will he still have the power of infallibility (that is, saying things that cannot be proven false)? Will his personalized ring, the Ring of the Fisherman, be destroyed as is customary when a pope leaves office—though normally it’s because he’s dead? Will he get to keep his wardrobe? Could he theoretically be re-elected pope? Some of these questions are buried deep in Catholic law, and my Latin isn’t all that it could be, but others have already been answered in English.
The Pope has announced that health conditions brought on by old age are the reason for his early retirement. Benedict, now age 85, was the oldest pope to be elected in nearly three hundred years and among the top five all-time oldest popes at the end of their papacy. The Pope has been in poor health for some time, at least since his last spring break in Mexico when he hit his head (you’ve got to wear the pope helmet, Benedict!). It has also been revealed that the pope has had a pacemaker for several years, replacing the batteries only a few months ago. In his official announcement of resignation, he said, “in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” Since then, he has added, “I did this in full liberty for the good of the church.”
Where will the Pope go after February 28? Most reports say he’ll stay in the Vatican for some time, and he has plenty of good reasons to do so. Initially after he steps down, he will spend the papal election season in Castel Gandolfo, a summer residence in the hills outside Rome. Then it’s back to the Vatican to live in a monastery, currently under renovation. There, Benedict XVI can stay out of the spotlight so as not to divert attention from the new pope. Indeed, many worry that the authority from the chair of St. Peter could be divided and a rivalry could ensue between papal factions. What if the new pope held views radically different from Benedict XVI, like in the handling of child sex abuse scandals? Would the former pope watch quietly?
When Pope Benedict XVI was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Since May 2001, this has been the organization in charge of handling child abuse cases across the world and deciding the best course of action. The current Pope was accused of being personally responsible for moving around pedophiles and concealing crimes of child rape for the good of the church in his former occupation. These accusations gained further attention in 2010 when there was an effort to have him arrested when he traveled to the United Kingdom. When Benedict XVI is no longer the pope, he will not enjoy the level of security he has now, Popemobile included. This seems to have affected his choice to remain in the Vatican upon retirement. Inside Vatican City, he will receive protection and immunity from further investigations into his connections with child abuse scandals.
So, when walking the halls of the Vatican, enjoying his retirement in the presence of Michelangelo and Raphael, how are we to address his current Holiness? Will he respond to Benedict or will he be plain ol’ Joseph Ratzinger? Certainly he will not be called Papa, Papst, or Pope. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales claim he will go back to Cardinal Ratzinger, yet Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said it would be pretty weird for him to go back to being called cardinal.
Since nobody is really asking what will happen to his ring, his hats, and his papal slippers, it’s hard to get a straight answer. My guess is that Benedict won’t voluntarily relinquish his hat or slippers, and he’ll say he lost the ring (“I don’t know what happened to it!”).
Most importantly, will he keep his twitter account @pontifex, or will he create a new one? Will we see @stilldapope or @lostmykeys?
Image by Sergey Gabdurakhmanov from http://www.flickr.com/photos/gabdurakhmanov/4365482009/