Ethics & Public Policy Center

Sede Vacante

Published in National Review Online on March 1, 2013


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Rome, March 1 — The elderly Carmelite who concelebrated the 9 a.m. Mass at the Church of S. Maria in Traspontina this morning was doing fine until he got to that part of the second Eucharistic Prayer where the commemoration of the pope is made. Then he paused, verbally thrashed a bit, and finally said “tutti i nostri vescovi [all our bishops]” before moving on.

It was a reminder that the Sede Vacante, the period when the Chair of Peter is empty, strikes home with particular force in Rome — and not just because it creates a bonanza for stamp and coin collectors, who scramble to obtain Vatican postage and Vatican coins with that rare Sede Vacante” mark on them. Everywhere else in the wide world of Catholicism, the Church prays, every day, “for . . . our pope and . . . our bishop” at the Eucharist, its central act of worship. But here in the Urbs, the city blessed by the blood of the two great apostles (as a slogan emblazoned on a tower of the North American College proclaims), there is no “our bishop.” The pope is the bishop of Rome. And when he dies, or renounces the Chair (as Pope Benedict XVI did at 8 p.m. Rome time last night), the Church of Rome is singularly bereft. Kinshasa and Cracow and Ho Chi Minh City and Lincoln, Neb., still have their local bishops; Rome is uniquely orphaned. For the Universal Pastor of the Church is its local bishop, and when the Chair is empty, Rome is empty. And you can feel it.

That same swirl of emotions was evident in Rome on February 22, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter in the liturgical calendar. How does one celebrate that feast eleven days after the successor of Peter has announced that, in conscience and after long prayer, he is going to renounce the Chair? How, under these circumstances, were preachers to interpret the Bible readings at Mass that day: from Peter himself, instructing the elders of the Church in what amounts to the first papal encyclical, to shepherd the flock of God, and from the Matthean account of Christ’s giving the power of the keys to Peter after his confession of faith?

There is not the slightest doubt that Pope Benedict XVI had the right to renounce the Chair, which is clear in canon law. There should not be the slightest doubt that he did so for the reason he gave on February 11: that, after long prayer and a deep examination of conscience, he had reached the conclusion that, as he could not give the Church the service it deserved because of what he described as his waning physical and mental capacities, he should renounce the Chair and retire to a private life of prayer in intercession for the entire Church. Reckless Italian media speculations that Benedict abdicated under pressure from others, or that he just couldn’t take it anymore, should be treated with the contempt they deserve. If the world ought to have learned anything about Joseph Ratzinger in the past eight years, it is that he is a man of conviction and conscience. And his conscientious decision ought to be honored as just that: a conscientious decision that was an act of self-abnegation, not of willfulness or self-assertion or, conversely, cowardice.

Nonetheless, by doing what has never been done before — none of the analogies to previous renunciations of the papacy really work, as they all involved various pressures and craziness — the pope who embodied the solidity and endurance of Catholic tradition for tens of millions has shaken the Church as it has not been shaken in a long time: perhaps since May 13, 1981, when John Paul II was shot in his front yard, St. Peter’s Square. Roman theologians and scholars whom I respect believe that something has been broken in the existential relationship that many Catholics have long had with the papacy. I think that’s a premature judgment; but it may be prove to be prophetic. Much will depend on Benedict’s successor and the decisions he makes about both his predecessor and his own longevity.

Benedict XVI’s advisers have not made that successor’s already-daunting task any easier by convincing the outgoing pope that he should be known as “Benedict XVI, pope emeritus”or “Roman pontiff emeritus” and that he will continue to wear the white cassock, albeit without the mozzetta, that white half-cape. So to underscore the obvious that has been made a bit obscure by what seem to me ill-advised decisions, it must be stated, on this first day of the Sede Vacante, that there is no bishop of Rome, no Roman pontiff, no pope: today, and until the College of Cardinals elects the next holder of that office. And then there will not be “two popes.” There is only one pope, one bishop of Rome, one Roman pontiff, one holder of the power of the keys, one source of authority in the Church. Period.

“Benedict XVI, pope emeritus” will, I am sure, do everything in his power to drive this point home. I very much doubt that we will see him for a very long time; we may never see him in public again. He is too much a churchman, too much a respecter of the prerogatives of the man who will succeed him under extremely difficult circumstances (that he, Benedict, in some sense, created) to do anything but stay off the stage. It is to be hoped that those with whom he takes counsel in the future grasp this as well as Benedict himself did when he said that he was now retiring from the scene, while remaining in solidarity with the Church in prayer.

Every Sede Vacante has a different emotional texture. In August 1978, many felt relief that the long agony that the papacy had been for Paul VI was now ended. A month later, the entire Church was in a profound state of shock in the Sede Vacante that followed the death of John Paul I, pope for 33 days — and that state of shock, according to one cardinal-elector in the second conclave of 1978, was the psychological condition for the possibility of breaking the Italian hammerlock on the papacy after 455 years. The Sede Vacante of 2005 was tinged with sadness, but the grief was accompanied by a sense of spiritual ennoblement: John Paul II had invited the world into his suffering and death, giving the world an experience of the mystery of suffering transformed by faith; and those who had accepted that invitation felt spiritually strengthened by it.

This situation is none of the above. The emptiness that many feel today — the emptiness that that aged Carmelite priest at S. Maria in Traspontina could not quite figure out what to do with this morning — is of a qualitatively different character. The Chair is empty, but without the spiritual and emotional catharsis of a papal funeral. The Chair is empty by renunciation, and the Church is sailing into uncharted waters without a helmsman and with a crew of senior officers that includes several public embarrassments. That, I suspect, is what many are feeling throughout the Church worldwide.

But if they are, in fact, feeling that way, they are missing the great last lesson taught by Benedict XVI on February 11, the day he made the shocking annoucement of his resignation, and that he reiterated on his last two days in office, at his final general audience and at his February 28 meeting with the College of Cardinals. Joseph Ratzinger has lived a Christocentric life for eight decades, and he maintained that focus on Christ to the end. He reminded the stunned cardinals listening to his intention on February 11 that it was Christ who ruled the Church, and would continue to rule the Church. He repeated the same message over the past two weeks. Those who care for the Church and about the Church should take it to heart, and take heart from it. Christ is the helmsman, although it may be difficult to discern the divine hand on the helm from time to time. But it is there. We have his word for it.

And now? What the Church manifestly needs is another pope who is transparent to the Christ living within him, who energizes others in the Church by the force of his faith and conviction, and who can, by who he is (as well as by what he says), in
vite others into a life-transforming and enriching friendship with Jesus Christ. That man can, and must, choose someone to clean up the Roman mess for him. He, the new pope, needs to get about the preaching of the gospel and the strengthening of the brethren, the work to which the Lord called Peter.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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