The new pope Francis has been getting great press. This has been almost entirely due to style, not substance. As far as we know, his opposition to same sex marriage, abortion, contraception, priestly celibacy, and ordination of women as clergy are no less reactionary than those of his predecessor. But the fact that he seems more informal, self-effacing, and at ease with ordinary people when compared with his austere predecessor seems to have enthralled followers and the media alike.
The interesting wild card that the new pope faces that no other pope has faced for 700 years is the fact that his predecessor is still around and that before he left office granted to himself many of the trappings associated with the papacy.
Further complicating an already novel situation is that Benedict, before he left office, decided that he would continue to wear white and he would take the title of “emeritus pope,” a position that never existed. He said he would continue to be called Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to his birth name, and he would be addressed as “Your Holiness,” a term previously reserved only for the reigning pope.
“I just cannot imagine anything so potentially divisive,” Michael Knowles wrote in a pointed essay in The Tablet of London, a leading Catholic periodical. “That is not resignation: that smacks of hanging on.” It will look, he added, “like we have two popes both living within the walls of the Vatican. The whole situation is simply intolerable.”
Even one of the church alsos leading canon lawyers in Rome, the Jesuit priest Gianfranco Ghirlanda, wrote in a prestigious, Vatican-approved journal that Benedict should not be called an “ex-pope” and that “the pope who has resigned is no longer pope.”
Ratzinger may be irked to be so quickly compared so unfavorably with Francis. The article goes on to say that there could be problems down the road with having a shadow pope. After all, Ratzinger was the consummate insider and he presumably would still exert considerable sway over the Curia that runs the Vatican.
One good thing about Ratzinger’s resignation is the precedent he has set. Before, however bad things got for a pope, people felt that they were pretty much stuck with him until he died. Now a discredited pope may face pressure to resign that is so strong that he cannot ignore it.