What's a (former) Benevacantist to do?
History provides an answer, but they're not going to like it...
The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI provides a moment of reckoning for that small subset of Catholics who argue that his resignation from the papacy was invalid for technical reasons.
Yes, such people exist. They believe that Pope Benedict failed to follow the proper procedure for a papal resignation, and therefore he never stopped being pope. By implication, they believe that everything that followed — the conclave, the election of Pope Francis, his reign as pope — is null and void.
They claim that their reasoning is the result of a sober, logical analysis of Benedict’s (attempted) resignation in light of canon law, tradition, and Catholic theology. There are different flavors of this phenomenon, but many, including former Catholic Answers radio host Patrick Coffin, promote a theory that hinges on Benedict’s act of resignation alone, independent of concerns about the events that followed.
Now that the man they believed was still pope has passed away, many in the Catholic world are wondering, mostly in amusement, what those who made up the “Benedict is (still) pope” crowd will do.
Some in this crowd are salivating over the possibility of a coalition of secretly-sedevacantist cardinals calling for a robber-conclave to install a new pope. The eligible electors must meet the following criteria:
They must have been appointed prior to Pope Francis’s 2013 election.
They must be under 80, and
They must be willing to take part in a farcical sideshow that will get them excommunicated from the actual Catholic Church and they will henceforth be permanently excluded from being anything but a punchline in serious discourse for the rest of human history.
At first, this seems like a slam dunk. The fine folks at catholic-hierarchy.com have constructed a sortable list of cardinal-electors. Presumably, conclave organizers need only sort by “Elevated” date and ring up each of the cardinals one by one. (“Hello?” “Your eminence, do you think Francis the pope or not? We’re throwing a conclave”). The hardest part is remembering to stop after Benedict’s last crop in 2012. Everyone who rejects Francis gets an invite to whichever restaurant or hotel ballroom will serve as a stand-in for the Sistine Chapel during the spectacle. (One imagines the logistics of managing the white and black smoke.)
Unfortunately, however, there are some problems with this plan. Determining eligibility is a bit fraught, for example. Something I hadn’t noticed before today is that retired Kenyan Cardinal John Njue’s official birthday appears to be “1944.”
I’m not joking. This is also what it says in his official Vatican biography:
Now, my beloved late sister was famous for stretching out her birthday over the entire month of June. But stretching one’s birthday to an entire year is a bit overboard (and defeats the entire point). Worst of all, Cardinal Njue is listed as “79” years old. But is he really?
Suffice it to say that if there’s a papal conclave before 2025, we’ll be faced with the biggest Kenyan birth certificate controversy since 2008.
But that’s not all. History tells us that if a conclave was convened, they’d be going about it all wrong.
From what I can tell, there’s only been one case in Church history when a pope announced his resignation under less-than-certain conditions and a universally-recognized successor was elected while he was still alive.
It happened in the 7th century, and the pontiff was Pope St. Martin I. He was elected to the papacy in the year 649, at the height of the Monothelite heresy. He soon came into conflict with the Byzantine Emperor Constans II, who supported the heresy. This all came to a head in the year 653, when the emperor sent his soldiers to Rome, where they kidnapped Pope Martin and carried him off to the Aegean island of Naxos, where he was imprisoned and tortured.
A letter by Pope Martin from prison is quoted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints. The saintly pontiff wrote, "I have not been given water for a bath in forty-seven days. I am frozen through and wasting away with dysentery. The food they give me is inedible. But God sees all things and I trust in him." Martin was later exiled to Crimea, where he died of starvation in 655. He is considered the last of the Roman Pontiffs to have died a martyr’s death.
During Pope Martin’s exile, Emperor Constans ordered the clergy of Rome to elect a new pontiff. They held off for some time, but ultimately they elected Eugene (also called Eugenius) as bishop of Rome in 654. According to Butler, some historical accounts suggest that the emperor hand-picked Eugene, but if this is true, Constans chose a man just as opposed to Monothelitism as Martin. Pope Eugene rejected the emperor’s demand that he embrace the heresy, dying in 657. Like Martin before him, Pope Eugene I is venerated as a saint.
The details on the transition of power between Martin and Eugene are murky at best. At most, Martin may have accepted the papacy of Eugene in a 655 letter, but he certainly didn’t offer his resignation prior to Eugene’s election. Regardless, it is difficult to argue that Martin’s resignation was offered freely and without coercion. It’s plausible, therefore, to believe that Eugene was (albeit unwittingly) an antipope during the months his reign overlapped with Martin’s life.
What’s not in doubt is that Eugene is recognized as having been a valid pope following the death of Pope Martin. There was no new conclave to elect him, as he seems to have been already universally recognized by the Church of Rome. He is now recognized as a saint in the Roman Church.
The parallels to the Benevacantist theory are striking — a good pope forced from the active exercise of his office, another man elevated to the papacy who is widely recognized as pope, the old pope dies in exile, the successor continues on and is recognized today as an undisputed pope. In light of this precedent, doesn’t reason dictate that Catholics in this situation must now recognize Francis as pope?
Somehow I doubt they’re really interested in following their theory to its logical conclusion, however.
Mike - last week I had a coffee catch with an old friend / fellow Catholic. It was a good opportunity to determine his views on the papacy. Having formed the view some years ago that Francis is the anti-pope, my friend has been a Benevacantist of sorts. With the passing of BXVI, I asked for his assessment. In summary, my friend is now a self-declared sedevacantist, is not prepared to accept JP II was a valid Pope, let alone Paul VI ...... I asked him whether JXXlIII was valid and he demurred .... I reminded him that he had once told me (some years ago now) that sedevacantism was a ‘dead end’ for the spiritual life. He shrugged and looked away. I also know of a young man who to get around the problem of valid orders / succession etc is of the view that Paul VI is still alive in some frozen form!!!