Have questions about the Pope’s resignation?

After the initial shock of the news wore off, the questions started.  While we here at The Catholic Realist are not cardinals, canon lawyers, or papal historians, we did some homework and got answers to a few of the questions running through the minds of our Catholic brothers and sisters today.

**Edit: As we come across more questions being asked, we’ll add them to the list.**

Q.  Wait…WHAT?! Is this a joke?

A.  Yeah, that was my first question too.  I woke up this morning and saw the following on my Facebook news feed:

BREAKING NEWS: Pope Benedict announces he will be retiring.

At first I thought it was a joke.  I thought maybe I had been in a coma for the past 2 months and it was really April 1 – and someone was pulling a bad April Fool’s Joke.  Then I read the Pope’s letter announcing his resignation.  Turns out, it’s not a joke.  Pope Benedict XVI is renouncing the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor to Saint Peter as of February 28, 2013.


Q.  Is that even possible?  Can a Pope just “quit”?

A.  Turns out, he can.  The Code of Canon Law states,

“If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone” (Canon 332, No. 2).

It’s rare, but there is a precedent in the two thousand year history of the church.

Now there's a Pope meme that's smart and funny!

Now there’s a Pope meme that’s smart and funny!

Pontian: Elected as the Successor of St. Peter on July 21, 230. During the persecution of Christians under Emperor Maximinus Thrax, St. Pontian was exiled to Sardinia and condemned to work in the salt mines, which no one was meant to survive. Therefore, he resigned as pope on Sept. 28, 235, to enable the election of a new pope, St. Anteros, who could govern the Church.

Marcellinus: This early church pope abdicated or was deposed in 304 after complying with the Roman emperor’s order to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods.

Benedict IX: His resignation was a business deal of sorts: he sold his seat for a large sum of money to the Archpriest John Gratain. This transaction was so scandalous that the king intervened, reinstating Benedict as pope. Benedict IX was then deposed again, reinstated once more, and finally driven away to make room for Damasus II.

Celestine V: Overwhelmed by the demands of the office, this pontiff stepped down after five months as pope in 1294, and became a hermit before his successor and locked up in an Italian castle.

Gregory XII: The last pope to resign, Gregory XII stepped down in 1415 to help end a church schism.

Q.  But…but…but…WHY?

A.  According to his letter,

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.

It’s well known that Pope Benedict has reached “an advanced age” (he’ll be 86 in April).  Recently he has begun cutting back on his foreign travel and limiting his audiences.  While he doesn’t have any specific life-threatening illnesses to be concerned about, he has been struggling with arthritis and the exhaustion that comes with being 85 years old and leading the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics.  He has been more halting in his steps, using a cane more often, and his speech has been more difficult to understand.  According to Time, his brother Georg, also a cleric, said that doctors had advised the pope to stop making transoceanic trips.

Most importantly, however, the Holy Father was very clear about his reasons for retiring:

After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

This is not about what the Pope desires or feels – this is about where he is certain God is calling him.  Even as he renounces the Papacy, the Holy Father is leading the faithful by example.  Oh, that we all would examine our consciences before God and listen and obey the sometimes frightening and often uncomfortable promptings of the Holy Spirit in our own lives!

Q.  Yeah, he said it’s because of his advanced age, but it’s really because of (insert reason here), isn’t it?

A.  Among the more cynical of our world, there are those who are claiming that Pope Benedict has really resigned because of any of the following reasons:

  • The recent arrest and conviction of his butler for passing on papal documents to a journalist (who eventually wrote a book about the less than savory inside workings of the Vatican). (Time)
  • Pope Benedict is trying to make up for his connections to a priest who, in 1980, was accused of molesting boys and was transferred to therapy instead of being permanently removed from his priestly duties.
Twitter: Always a valid and trustworthy source of factual information

Twitter: Always a valid and trustworthy source of factual information

You’ll notice that all of these sources are non-Catholic, secular sources.  These are the same sources who seem to understand the workings and teachings of the Catholic church about as well as I can understand Mandarin Chinese.  Safe to say, the conspiracy theories are just that…

Q.  What’s significant about his decision to announce his resignation on February 11?

A.  February 11, 2013 is the feast of Our Lady Our Lourdes, and it is also the World Day of the Sick.

Our Lady of Lourdes is the name of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin to St Bernadette in Lourdes, France. The grotto where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette has been the destination of pilgrims from all over the world, many of whom have experienced healing from the water that springs there.


Pope Benedict is pictured here at the grotto.

Please keep in your prayers all those who are sick and suffering in body or mind today, as well as their care givers. As Pope Benedict has chosen to resign due to his health and strength concerns, let us also keep him in our prayers as we lift up this intention.

Q.  What do we call him after February 28, 2013?

A.  We still refer to former Presidents as Mr. President.  Does that mean that after his official date of resignation, we’ll still call him Pope Benedict XVI?  Or perhaps, as one morning radio show cheekily suggested, we’ll call him Ex-Benedict?

Ex - Benedict...Eggs Benedict...Get it?

Ex – Benedict…Eggs Benedict…Get it?

***UPDATE: Benedict XVI will be “Pontiff emeritus” or “Pope emeritus”, as Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., director of the Holy See Press Office, reported in a press conference on the final days of the current pontificate. He will keep the name of “His Holiness, Benedict XVI” and will dress in a simple white cassock without the mozzetta (elbow-length cape). (H/T to Biltrix for the info)

Q. Who is in charge of the Church in the meantime?

A.  After Feb 28th and before the conclave Cardinal Bertone is the Camerlengo, serving and acting head of State of the Vatican. He will run the church until the new Pope is elected. The tradition in the church is for Conclave to take place 2 weeks after the death of a pope. This time is different because the pope is alive which means we are not sure when the conclave will take place.

Cardinal Bertone

Cardinal Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State

Q.  How do we get a new Pope?

65245_160579974091753_1515079139_nA.  The process and procedure for electing a Pope has been the same for hundreds of years (though some of the rules have changed in recent years).  The Cardinal Electors gather in what is called the Conclave.

To be elected Pope, one Cardinal must receive at least two-thirds of the votes. Except that, under the new rules established by Pope John Paul II, if a certain number of ballots have taken place without any Cardinal being elected Pope, then the Cardinals may then elect by simple majority.

**Edit: In 2007, Pope Benedict reverted back to the two-thirds majority rule, reversing a 1996 decision by Pope John Paul II, who had decreed that a simple majority could be invoked after about 12 days of inconclusive voting. Benedict did so to prevent cardinals from holding out for 12 days then pushing through a candidate who only had only a slim majority. (Thanks to reader Tommy for the catch!)

The Cardinals all take seats around the wall of the Sistine Chapel and take a ballot paper on which is written “Eligo in summum pontificem” — “I elect as supreme Pontiff…”. They then write a name on it, fold it, and then proceed one by one to approach the altar, where a chalice stands with a paten on it. They hold up their ballot high to show that they have voted, then place it on the paten, and then slide it into the chalice. The votes are then counted by the Cardinal Camerlengo and his three assistants. Each assistant reads the name, reads the name aloud, writes it down on a tally sheet and then passes it to the next assistant. The third assistant runs a needle and thread through the centre of each ballot to join them all together. The ballots are then burned, as well as all notes made. If a new Pope has been elected, the papers are burned with chemicals (it used to be wet straw) to give white smoke. Otherwise, they give off black smoke, so that the waiting crowds, and the world, know whether their new Holy Father will soon emerge from the Sistine Chapel. On 6 April 2005, it was announced that, in addition to the white smoke, the bells of St Peter’s Basilica will be rung to signal the election of the new Pope. This will avoid any doubt about whether the smoke is white or black. (Source and for more information: Catholic Pages)

Q.  So if he’s a still a Cardinal, will soon-to-be Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger get to cast his vote in the conclave for the next Pope?

A.  Nope, he is past the age of eligibility for casting a vote.  Under current ecclesiastical law all cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote, except that cardinals whose names remained reserved by the pope “in pectore” (currently there are none) are ineligible.

Q.  Who is going to be the next Pope?

A.  The Catholics who are not still holding their breaths have immediately begun speculating on how the next Supreme Pontiff will be.  Americans with little understanding of Church politics are fervently hoping for Cardinal Dolan.  Those who follow the St. Malachy prophesies are predicting a black pope.  Even the secular media has gotten on board with their lists of Top 5 (or 8 or 4) candidates. You could even place a bet on the outcome of the conclave if you’re into that kind of thing.

We’re not prepared to enter the debate because despite the rampant speculation, we just don’t know.  But God does and so we pray and trust the Holy Spirit to guide the decisions of the Cardinals as they choose our next shepherd.

Q. Will the new Pope finally change the Church’s position on _____________ (gay marriage, women’s ordination, novus ordo, contraception, fill in the Church teaching I personally struggle with here)?

A.  No.  Those Church teachings are based on Sacred Scripture and 2000 years of Sacred Tradition.  They are not subject to the whims or personal preferences of an individual, not even if that individual is the Supreme Pontiff.  The doctrines, dogmas, and moral teachings of the Church are examined and held up to scrutiny by the smartest and holiest theologians the Church has to offer, and any newly elected Pope will be charged with upholding the sacred Deposit of Faith.  The Church does not subject itself to the world, but seeks to influence the world.

Q.  Now what do I do?

A.  There have been a variety of reactions to the Pope’s surprising announcement.  Some are thrilled and hopeful to get a more “modern” Pope.  Others, like Cardinal Dolan, have felt a particular connection to Benedict and are sad to see him go.  Many, many Catholics are surprised (including the Cardinals who did not know the announcement was coming) and some are still in a bit of shock.  Some are scared that somehow, this surprising and unexpected move is a harbinger of doom for the Catholic Church.

We here at The Catholic Realist will be doing what we do best when facing the unknown:  praying.  We’d invite you to join in prayer with us:

Please pray for our Holy Father.  Please pray for the Cardinals of the Church as they open themselves to the Holy Spirit.  Pray for the Bishops and Priests of the Church as they wait for their new shepherd.  Pray for the lay faithful, that they see the profound work of the Holy Spirit in their Church.  And please pray for the news media, that they have a gentle kindness in reporting the news. (from Holy Trinity Parish in Norfolk, VA)

Prayer for the Pope

O God, who in your providential design willed that your Church be built upon blessed Peter, whom you set over the other Apostles, look with favor, we pray, on Benedict our Pope and grant that he, whom you have made Peter’s successor, may be for your people a visible source and foundation of unity in faith and of communion.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.   – Missale Romanum



  1. Tommy · February 11, 2013

    I’d have to find the source but I read somewhere today that Benedict has since rescinded John Paul’s rule about the simple majority. Recently adapting the rule that it is still the 2/3rds majority that elects the Pope. After 15 days the Cardinals take a break from Conclave and have a day of reflection. After that the top 2 candidates remain on the ballot.

    • ymkbird · February 11, 2013

      Thanks for the catch Tommy – I edited above to reflect that!

  2. Chibuzo Udealor · February 12, 2013

    The title “PONTIFF EMERITUS” is a terrible epithet that will presage the death of organised religion in a science-propelled world. It is so far the greatest landmark of the 21st century. It shall usher in an Enlightened world free from the deceptions of organisd religion. The Christian church is dying by degrees having committd countless atrocities: Remember Hypatia, Mithras, Horus, witch hunting, Slave Trade, colonialism, the masacre of native Americans and Africans, the grand Inquisitions, Galileo, six million Jews, Supreme Intolerance, Bible frauds and forgeries etc. This is the beginning of the end. Remember Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and Hardy’s “Christmas 1924”. From Chibuzo Udealor.

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