Canon Law Professor Gives Canonical Context to Papal Resignation

Lateran University Professor Shows Appreciation for Pope Benedict’s Service to the Church

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One day following Pope Benedict XVI’s historic announcement of his resignation, a professor of canon law for Pontifical Lateran University (PUL) sheds light on the process of papal resignation according to the codes of canon law.

The Holy Father made the announcement yesterday during a consistory to announce three forthcoming canonizations, informing the cardinals present that he would be resigning on the evening of February 28, 2013.

ZENIT spoke with Manuel Jesus Arroba, professor of procedural canon law for the PUL, about the canonical implications when a living pontiff chooses to resign.

ZENIT: What were your impressions of the news of the Holy Father’s resignation?

Manuel Jesus Arroba: Obviously, in receiving any news there is an emotional component, therefore, in this case there was considerable surprise, combined with a feeling of affection for the person of Benedict XVI. As a «cold intellectual», I must say that I felt a certain joy in seeing the translation into a concrete case of something that is essential to the life of the Church: the positions of responsibility in the governance of the Church had the opportunity to be seen as a real service. Positions do not exist for the people: it is the people who are called to carry out, through their position, a vocation to which they have been called by the Lord, in this case, of course, through the mediation of the College of Cardinals which bestows this office. But it makes sense to stay in an office only if one is in a position to carry it out. From this point of view, I admired Benedict XVI’s vocational authenticity.

ZENIT: Can you explain the canonical norm that allows a Pope to resign?

Manuel Jesus Arroba: Precisely because we are dealing with offices and a service, there are canonical norms for the acceptance and termination of each office.  Death is only one of the ways of terminating an office; other ways are transfer and removal (including criminal). The way that best reflects the nature of the service performed by these offices is renunciation. The Code of Canon Law provides for the possibility of a pope to renounce his office and it resembles any other renunciation, with one distinction: all renunciations must be made by capable, and thus free, individuals; they cannot be the result of coercion, violence or a moment of confusion. Furthermore, they should be made manifest in a valid manner: for some offices, renunciation requires a solemn act. In his case, Benedict XVI chose as a way to make it formally manifest, to make a statement, not a request. He announced it to a small group of Cardinals during a Consistory. Finally, any waiver to be fully effective must be accepted by the highest authority responsible for each office: in the Pope’s case, since there is no higher authority, his renunciation does not have to be accepted by anyone but can simply be expressed freely. In fact, the Pope did not use the term «I request» but «I declare«.

ZENIT: From a canonical point of view, what will happen to Benedict XVI? Will he be a «Pope Emeritus»? When he dies, will he be buried in St. Peter like his predecessors?

Manuel Jesus Arroba: The fact that the end of his pontificate occurs not as a result of death but by renunciation, in no way precludes Pope Ratzinger from being buried in St. Peter’s, but this is a slightly dismal matter to reflect on… Juridically, there is only one Pope. A «Pope Emeritus pope» cannot exist: the office he holds is supreme, that is, the highest in responsibility. Benedict XVI said that in the coming years he will serve the Church in a different way, no longer in the office of the Supreme Pontiff, but in prayer and study. This service is that of the scholar, to some extent that of the monk and contemplative but no longer that of a man who governs. As far as popes go, therefore, there is only one, even if the person who previously held that position is still alive, and it is not the first time that this has happened in the history of the Church, although these cases are not very frequent: here in Italy everyone knows of the case of Celestine V, who was a monk elected pope in a difficult conclave and after a while felt he was unable to perform the service adequately, so he resigned. There have been, however, other less well-known cases.

It is in any case an extraordinary situation for the Church, though it is not the first time: it is normal to understand that the physical component of peoples’ lives has changed, which now normally lasts longer, but are not necessarily accompanied by the opportunity to serve equally well, as the Pope said about his case. In addition, there has also been a change in the volume and quality of the challenges that are presented to the Church not as such, but as the Holy See, that is, as the supreme office. In society and in communication, in particular, the challenges requiring sufficient strength are more abundant, as the Pope said.

ZENIT: In conclusion, do you have anything more to add?

Manuel Jesus Arroba: The Pope’s ministry is to confirm in the faith, and so, naturally, for the office of the Roman Pontiff, another person will be elected for this service. It is interesting at this juncture to see the normality of the Church, which passes from an occupied see to a vacant see, to then pass back to an occupied see, according to the pre-established norms, and according to the current constitution in case of vacancy. A vacant see is one thing, the death of the pope is another. The death of a pope is just one way a vacant see can be produced; renunciation is a second way.

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Ann Schneible

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