Thomas Reese on Why Two Popes Are One Too Many

Pope Francis embraces Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before opening the Holy Door to mark opening of the Catholic Holy Year, or Jubilee, in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, on Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo by Osservatore Romano/Handout via AP)

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


In a new book, “From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his co-author, conservative Cardinal Robert Sarah, strongly defend celibacy, arguing that priesthood and sexual abstinence are integrally linked together. He argues that even married priests were supposed to abstain from sex after ordination.

This would have been news to 11 of the 12 Apostles, including Peter the first pope, who were married. To say that one must be celibate to be a good priest contradicts reality and is insulting to married priests and ministers in Protestantism and the Eastern churches.

True, after the apostolic period, there were church rules requiring abstinence from sex before saying Mass, but this teaching certainly did not come from Jesus. It was an imitation of the similar rules for Levitical priests who had to abstain from sex during their time of service in the temple. This was not a major problem when Mass was only celebrated on Sundays, but when Mass became a daily event, it made marriage impossible.

What we really learn from this new book is the danger of having two popes in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is seriously considering a proposal to allow mature married men to be ordained, a proposal that came out of last October’s Synod on the Amazon. The book will make it much more difficult for Francis to do so.

The synod, mostly made up of bishops from the Amazon region, argued that the church in that part of the world desperately needs priests, and not enough men are willing to give up marriage and family as the price for ordination. They voted 128-41 in favor of allowing the ordination of mature married men.

We currently only know of the new book from advanced excerpts in the media. When the book is published in mid-February, historians and theologians can more thoroughly examine its arguments. This should be done with respect but also with recognition that Benedict’s words no longer carry any papal authority.

From the announcement of his resignation almost seven years ago, people have been speculating about the danger of having two popes in the Catholic Church. Although technically, once he resigned, Benedict lost his papal authority, many people revere and honor him as pope.

For the most part, Benedict has taken a low profile and not spoken or written much since he retired. However, whenever he did, he made headlines, and discussions of how his views differed from those of Francis followed. This is problematic for a church that prizes unity in papal teaching.

Part of the problem is that Benedict was poorly advised on how the church should deal with retired popes. The church clearly needs to rethink its rules for the situation. We don’t want to imprison them, as Pope Celestine’s successor did to him, but the church needs to make clear that there is only one pope.

I would suggest five rules for dealing with retired popes to make it clear that there is only one ultimate authority in the Catholic Church.

First, the retired pope should no longer be called pope. Nor should he be called pope emeritus. Once he resigns, he should be referred to as a retired cardinal and the bishop emeritus of Rome. He would have the rank and status of the most senior retired cardinal.

Second, he should return to his original name; he should not be referred to by his papal name. Obviously, anything he said or did while pope can have his papal name attached to it, but anything he does after retiring would be under his original name.

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Source: Religion News Service