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Amid Pope Benedict book controversy, Vatican officials see need for rules on ex-popes

An imbroglio over former Pope Benedict’s involvement in a book has sparked calls by some Vatican officials for clear rules about the status of any future pontiffs who may resign rather than rule for life.

Senior official sources said they hope Pope Francis addresses the issue after the death of Pope Benedict, who in 2013 became the first pope in 700 years to abdicate and who is now a frail 92-year-old.

The idea of such rules, which is being discussed informally, is important because, as people live longer than they did in the past, it may become the new normal for popes to step down, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Pope Francis, 83, has said he too would resign if ill health prevented him from properly running the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church, as Pope Benedict did.

Church law says a pope can resign, but it lacks specific rules on his status, title, and prerogatives. The issue exploded this week amid controversy around a book the publishers say was co-authored by Pope Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah, a leading Vatican conservative, on the issue of priestly celibacy.

On the eve of publication, Pope Benedict said he wanted his name removed as co-author. The publishers refused. Cardinal Sarah said Pope Benedict had known he would be listed as co-author and dismissed accusations he had manipulated the ex-pontiff.

“The pope emeritus has been dragged yet again into an unseemly power play against Francis,” wrote Austen Ivereigh, author of two biographies of Pope Francis, adding that “the emeritus papacy has proved a disorderly institution, one vulnerable to manipulation …”

Supporters of Pope Francis see the timing of the book as interference by church conservatives such as Cardinal Sarah, coming as the pope considers allowing older married men to be ordained in the remotest areas of the Amazon, to deal with the shortage of priests there.

Since he stepped down, Pope Benedict has occasionally allowed his views on specific subjects to be aired outside the Vatican, to the joy of fellow conservatives who have used them as ammunition to contest Pope Francis’ more open-minded papacy.

Papal resignations are still a new frontier. Days before Pope Benedict abdicated on Feb. 28, 2013, he scripted his own rules, investing himself with the title pope emeritus, deciding to continue to wear white and to live in the Vatican.

Pope Francis visits his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican, Dec. 21, 2018. (Photo is a Vatican Media/Handout via Reuters)

‘Symbols are important’

Some critics believe he should have stepped further away from the papacy and kept strictly to his promise to “remain hidden from the world” after abdicating.

“In the Catholic Church, symbols are important,” said Father Tom Reese, a Washington-based Catholic author and commentator for Religion News Service.

“Symbols communicate, they teach. If you are not the pope, you should not be wearing white. Having two men wearing white sitting next to each other makes them look like they are equals, when they are not,” he wrote.

Father Reese said an ex-pontiff should not be called pope, should return to wearing either the red or black garb of a cardinal or priest, and should return to using his own name.

Since a pope is also the bishop of Rome, Father Reese and others have suggested that a former pontiff should be called “bishop emeritus of Rome”.

He would then be subject to the same written rules, last updated in 2004, that cover retired bishops.

Those rules say any bishop emeritus “will want to avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the diocesan community.”

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