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For conservative Catholics, one pope too many

February 26, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Pope Benedict XVI during his last Angelus noon prayer on Sunday.
Pope Benedict XVI during his last Angelus noon prayer on Sunday. (Domenico Stinellis / Associated…)

Although they have been quiet about it, conservative Roman Catholics have reservations about Pope Benedict XVI’s impending departure completely unrelated to their sadness at losing a pastor they admire. Those misgivings are likely to be exacerbated by the news that Benedict will be known officially as “pope emeritus” or “Roman pontiff emeritus.”

Although a papal resignation is provided for in church law, Benedict’s decision undermines the mystique of papal uniqueness. As I discussed in a column several years ago, a papal retirement emphasizes that the pope is a bishop, albeit the bishop of Rome. Liberal Catholics long have emphasized that fact, sometimes referring to the pope as the head of the “college of bishops.” Conservative Catholics prefer the pre-Vatican II view of the pope as the source of all human authority in the church, akin to a king.

Indeed, it is conservative Catholics who have been insisting that the proper term for Benedict’s decision is “abdication,” not “resignation.” An abdication is seen as a rupture is the natural order of monarchy, even when it is necessary. But the less seen of the former king, the better. Britain’s Edward VIII became the Duke of Windsor after his retirement, not “king emeritus.”

Likewise, the assumption immediately after Benedict’s announcement was that he too would retreat into utter obscurity. But that apparently isn’t what will happen. He will continue to wear a white cassock, be known as Benedict, not Joseph Ratzinger (except in his writings) and, presumably, be listed on the “Diocese of Rome” page on the Catholic Hierarchy website the way Cardinal Roger M. Mahony appears on the Archdiocese of Los Angeles page.

Granted that there is only one actual pope at a time (and only one who can make infallible pronouncements on matters of faith and morals), the existence of two men who are addressed as "your holiness" changes the ecclesiastical atmospherics. For a lot of traditionalist Catholics, two “popes” (even if one is emeritus) is one pope too many.

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