Putting a pope out to pasture

The Catholic Church cannot survive having more than one person who claims to be and is recognised as the pope.

A file photo dated 07 April 2012 shows Pope Benedict XVI holding a candl
The Pope's resignation is an unambiguous sign that he is prepared to give up all claims to the title given to him [EPA]

It is said that horses that can no longer manage their workload are sent out to pasture. Relocation to a grassy field (as opposed to the glue factory) occurs in acknowledgment of a lifetime of dutiful labour. It rewards diligence with comfort and ease: sunshine and plentiful food.  

Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has decided to put himself out to pasture with the papal equivalent of sun and grass being the light and nourishment provided by prayer in a monastery. 

It should not be surprising that an incredibly hard-working 85-year-old man has decided to retire. What makes it newsworthy is that the pope has decided to retire. Popes do not resign (unless to prevent a once in a millennium schism). 

Tradition looms large in most faiths, certainly within the Catholic Church. Centuries of precedent have framed our expectations. A pope dies. A cardinal becomes pope. The (new) pope dies. The cycle repeats. Retirement, resignation, vacation (as in voluntarily “vacating” the papal throne) were never really options… until now. 

What are the effects of a pope putting himself out to pasture? 

History tells us that the Catholic Church cannot survive having more than one person who claims to be and is recognised as the pope. Certainly, Pope Benedict’s resignation is an unambiguous sign that he is prepared to give up all claims to the title given to him. Nevertheless, people will continue to view him as the pope even after a successor has been named. 

To avoid the problem of having one pope too many, the Vatican will make great efforts to distinguish the soon-to-be-former pope from his successor. It has been suggested that the pope might revert back to a cardinal – from Ratzinger to Benedict to Ratzinger again – or, perhaps, he could be called the Bishop of Rome emeritus

Whatever official name Pope Benedict is given by the Vatican (and which almost certainly will not include the word “pope”), most people will ignore it in favour of something more endearing and of their own creation. I personally vote for “the Pope Emeritus”. 

The confusion of the new name coupled with the reluctance to see a person who currently is the pope as no longer the pope will likely result in Benedict’s disappearance from the public eye (unless paparazzi suddenly take an interest in the antics of an octogenarian former pontiff).

 A look back at Pope Benedict XVI’s career

In the future, we will only hear about Benedict when news outlets report that he has been rushed to the hospital or, more likely, when he has died. 

Presidents and prime ministers can maintain a public profile after their formal service has ended, a pope can’t. The spiritual authority of the pope exists not through his selection by a group of cardinals but rather from the sense that he has become the heir of the recently departed and deceased pope. 

He stands in and speaks for his predecessors, going all the way back to St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. He becomes their embodiment. 

To have an audience with the pope is to come into contact with all those who preceded him and, by extension, to be only one degree removed from Jesus Christ. This is why being in the presence of the pope is such a thrill, honour and event for the faithful. 

More than one pope living at the same time complicates the narrative. The Pope Emeritus has to disappear. 

The resignation also conveniently creates a new image for the papacy, one recently defined by the diminishing capacities of Pope John Paul II. 

Although the visible ailments of Pope Benedict’s predecessor aligns with a core image of the Catholic Church – suffering while maintaining an unwavering devotion to God – and motivated a spirited campaign for early canonisation and sainthood, they also posed problems for the pontiff in the execution of his duties. 

Pope Benedict’s resignation seeks to avoid association of the papacy with frailty. At a time when religious belief is slackening – out of disappointment with sexual abuse scandals or, perhaps, from the belief that the church may be an anachronism, the body that represents the church must have control of all its faculties. 

The pope’s early retirement establishes a precedent. With people living longer and longer, it is likely that pontiff resignation may become increasingly common. 

The advanced age of those who become pope makes it unlikely that there will ever be a large number of living former popes. Nevertheless, the future existence of Pope Emeriti is possible. 

The presence of more than one pope (even if all but one is rarely seen) challenges the expectations and long held traditions of the Catholic Church. It also inspires a simple question with a complicated answer: How does a person stop being (and stop being seen) as the pope without dying?  

Harvey Young is an associate professor at Northwestern University and a Fellow at the Charles Warren Centre for Studies in American History at Harvard University. A cultural historian, he is the author of Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body.