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.”