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Was Benedict XVI the True Pope the Whole Time?

No, no, definitely not. From 2013, Francis was pope, and Benedict was pope emeritus. This is crucial to understand.

Of all the things Benedict XVI did as a theologian, and then a cardinal, and then a pope, the one detail that every one of his obituaries touches upon is his resignation. His announcement of this plan to resign, just shy of a decade ago, shocked the world. In fact, in the aftermath of Benedict’s resignation came a strange phenomenon: Catholics claiming that he hadn’t really resigned.

Patrick Coffin, former host of Catholic Answers Live, suggested that Benedict’s “resignation” was some kind of elaborate sting operation, in which Benedict merely pretended not to be the pope to expose corruption in the Church. In Coffin’s words, “if his abdication was intentionally false, it was a masterstroke, pure genius, because it revealed all the corruption that he knew was simmering just below the surface of the Church’s life, but he was too weak to confront it.”

This is a form of “Benevacantism”—the theory that Benedict XVI never truly abdicated and was, in fact, the true pope, whereas Francis was and still is an antipope.

Given that we’ve already addressed this argument elsewhere, why bring it up again? For two reasons. First, Benedict’s death clarifies something that Coffin and others misunderstood. In his final general audience, Benedict asked for prayers “for the new successor of the apostle Peter” and then again asked “each of you to pray for me and for the new pope.” That Benedict was declaring himself no longer the pope was unambiguous. But he also said something else, which has led to a great deal of confusion:

The “always” is also a “for ever”—there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter.

This line is supposedly the key proving that Benedict didn’t really resign. But this gravely misconstrues what the pope meant.

In the year 451, after Pope St. Leo the Great intervened at the Council of Chalcedon to clarify the orthodox understanding of the natures of Christ, the assembled bishops cried out, “Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken thus through Leo.” Were the bishops at Chalcedon trying to claim that there were two rival popes, Leo and Peter? Not at all.

They were acknowledging that Jesus had entrusted Peter with the care of the whole flock of Christ (John 21:15), and that this entrustment still mattered even after Peter’s martyrdom. (The idea of “patron saints” is rooted in this same spiritual reality. St. Patrick, for instance, didn’t suddenly stop caring about the Irish once he went to heaven.) This is recognized in the liturgy as well: popes on the liturgical calendar are listed as “Saint X, pope,” and there are special prayers for honoring saintly popes.

In other words, when Benedict XVI said that “the ‘always’ is also a ‘for ever,’” he meant just that: forever. Something is gained in becoming pope that is never lost, not by resignation and not even by death. Ironically, this is clearer in Benedict’s death than in his life. We’re now free from the cumbersome term pope emeritus and can return to calling him simply “Pope Benedict XVI,” since it’s now clear what is (and isn’t) meant by that title.

This spiritual reality—which he perceived but which so many Catholics missed—also stands behind so many of his other decisions. Many thought that “the term ‘pope emeritus’ has no precedent and is confusing.” But in a letter to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, Benedict clarified that he had opted against going back to being called Cardinal Ratzinger because he didn’t want to be “constantly exposed to the media as a cardinal is—even more so because people would have seen in me the former pope.” Instead, “with ‘pope emeritus,’ I tried to create a situation in which I am absolutely not accessible to the media and in which it is completely clear that there is only one pope.” Benedict wanted us to hear emeritus, while so many people insisted on hearing only pope. But this is the real key: facing relatively uncharted territory, Benedict tried to find a way of expressing both that his resignation didn’t undo his papacy and that he was no longer the reigning pontiff.

The second reason to return to Benevacantism is more distressing. Upon hearing of Benedict’s death, Coffin announced that he had become a sedevacantist, saying, “The pope has entered eternity, RIP. The impeded See is now vacant. May the pre-2013 cardinals do the right thing, and avoid yet another antipope.” Why is that so alarming? Because this line of reasoning makes for a clear collision course for schism and heresy. Here’s why.

Only cardinals under the age of eighty can vote, and Benevacantists don’t accept the legitimacy of the cardinals created by Pope Francis, since they don’t accept the legitimacy of Pope Francis. That leaves only forty-four of the 224 cardinals in the College of Cardinals who are old enough to have been made a cardinal by John Paul II or Benedict, but young enough still to be voting age.

Under the rules laid out by Universi Dominici Gregis, a papal conclave must be called within twenty days of the death of the pope. So if you think Pope Francis is an antipope, the only way out of that situation is if, by January 20 of this year, those forty-four cardinals (a) conclude that Pope Francis is an antipope, and that none of the cardinals he appointed is really a cardinal, and (b) somehow form a papal conclave to begin the process of electing a new pope. We’ll leave aside all of the implausible logistics of such a suggestion (like where such a conclave would even convene, since Pope Francis presumably won’t offer the Sistine Chapel).

Imagine for a moment that, despite its implausibility, this occurred. Would that bring peace and unity to the Catholic Church? Of course not. History shows the opposite. In 1378, the College of Cardinals elected Urban VI as pope. But a group of mostly French cardinals alleged electoral irregularities and tried to elect someone else once they returned to France. Thus began the period known as the Western Schism or Papal Schism, in which two (and eventually three!) separate men claimed to be the true pope.

Prior to becoming pope himself, Cardinal Ratzinger pointed to this period as a disaster for the Church and suggested that it was responsible for the Reformation.

So Benedict XVI well understood the spiritual disaster of two men each claiming to be pope. It’s neither a plausible theory nor a service to his legacy to suggest that he purposely recreated such a crisis in the Church by pretending to resign and tricking the College of Cardinals into electing an antipope.

So that’s one possibility: the forty-four cardinals get together and create a new papal schism, and the Church suffers tremendously. But that won’t happen. The “pre-2013 cardinals” did convene a papal conclave in 2013 . . . and they elected Pope Francis. None of them disputes this. So what will really happen is that January 20, the last possible date for a papal conclave, will come and go without event, because the See of Peter isn’t empty. And the “pre-2013 cardinals” will one by one reach the age of eighty and no longer be eligible to vote in any future conclave. (Cardinal Bagnasco turns eighty on January 14, and seven of the other forty-three will turn eighty later this year).

At that point, Benevacantists will seem to be in the position of perpetual sedevacantism: there’s no living pope and no way for a new pope ever to be elected. But that’s an anathematized heresy. The First Vatican Council, in Pastor Aeternus, says that “if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.”

To believe that at some point—at Vatican II, or in 2013, or at any other point in the past or the future—the papacy will simply cease to be a part of the Church is to misunderstand why Jesus established the papacy in the first place.

St. Augustine argues that the last chapter of the Gospel of John was written not to reveal to us that Jesus had risen from the dead (the prior chapter had already done that), but with “special reference to the mystery of the Church, as regards its future character, in the final resurrection of the dead.”

In that chapter, there are seven disciples (the Hebrew number of completion), led by St. Peter (John 21:2-3). While they’re out there on the water, Christ appears to them standing on the shores, which Augustine recognizes as “the limit of the sea, and signifies therefore the end of the world.” At Christ’s command, they lower their nets for a catch of fish so large that “they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish” (v. 6).

The apostles go to Jesus on the shore, but Jesus says, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” And so “Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn” (vv. 10-11). Where the seven apostles had been incapable of hauling in the nets by their own power, Peter can now singlehandedly (at Jesus’ command) haul the net ashore.

The imagery is clear here: Jesus has already used a miraculous catch of fish to depict Peter as a “fisher of men” (Luke 5:1-11), and he’s already compared the Church to a net of good and bad fish that will be hauled ashore and sorted out at the close of the age (Matt. 13:47-50). Now he’s combining those two images, showing us that it’s Peter job to bring the net of the Church to the eternal shores. As Augustine says, “the same end of the world is shown also by the act of Peter, in drawing the net to land, that is, to the shore.” And when John says that the net wasn’t “torn,” the word he uses, schizō, is the root of the English “schism.” So if you want to be not in schism, stay in the net pulled by Peter.

This entails that there will always be a Peter to pull the net of the Church. As Vatican I explained, “to this day and forever [St. Peter] lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the pontiffs of the Holy Roman See, which he founded and consecrated with his blood.” The “always” is also a “for ever.” Peter, once pope, still reigns with Francis. And now, God willing, Benedict does so as well.

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