The myth of the self-regulating institution of ‚pope emeritus‘

It is not an accident that one of the most important social theorists, Max Weber, decided to study the dynamics of political and bureaucratic power after spending some time in post-Vatican I Rome. The papacy is about the history of the growth of a papal apparatus more than a speculative theology of the papal ministry. There is no possible understanding of the evolution of the Petrine ministry, of the office of the bishop of Rome as pope of the Roman Catholic Church, without understanding the constellation of offices, ministries, prelatures, and ecclesiastical or secular appendixes revolving around the successor of Peter.

Now, one of the most important recent additions in the constellation of offices that orbit the papal office is the so-called „pope emeritus,“ a title that Benedict XVI created for himself after his decision to resign. He made the decision some time in 2012 and announced it to the world — in a speech delivered in Latin — on Feb. 11, 2013.

The „emeritus“ as an institution was created on the fly in those hectic weeks right before the conclave that elected Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis. It was created without the usually and frustratingly slow, partly visible and partly invisible process of making structural changes in the Vatican. The new institution was largely improvised, with no recent tradition to count on, and entirely left to the „pope emeritus“ to regulate himself.

The issue is the freedom of the bishop of Rome in his ministry, a ministry of unity of the church, free from undue interference external or internal.

The conclave that elected Francis was extraordinary also because usually the election of the new „father“ follows a few days after the burial of the predecessor: something like the demise of the father that creates the necessary space for a new one. This could not happen in 2013.


[Massimo Faggioli is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.]
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