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Benedict contra Benevacantism

Since a small but significant number of Catholics remain attracted to this foolish thesis, it seems worthwhile calling attention to how Benedict’s remarks throw further cold water on it.

Pope Francis greets Pope emeritus Benedict XVI at the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae Monastery on Nov. 28, 2020. (Credit: Vatican Media.)

I’ve been reading the second volume of Peter Seewald’s Benedict XVI: A Life  There is much of interest in it, including a new interview with Benedict at the very end.  Some of what he says is relevant to the controversy over Benevacantism (also called “Beneplenism” and the “Benedict is pope (BiP)” thesis), which holds that Benedict never validly resigned and that Francis is an antipope.  I’ve addressed this topic a couple of times before and the debate is, in my view, essentially played out.  But since a small but significant number of Catholics remain attracted to this foolish thesis, it seems worthwhile calling attention to how Benedict’s remarks throw further cold water on it.

Who is the current pope?

Seewald reports that in a 2018 exchange, Benedict refused to answer certain questions about the current situation in the Church, on the grounds that this would “inevitably be interfering in the work of the present pope.  I must avoid and want to avoid anything in that direction” (p. 533, emphasis added).  That remark by itself demonstrates that Benedict does not regard himself as still pope.  For if he were, then he could hardly be interfering with himself by speaking out.  Benedict also explicitly rejects “any idea of there being two popes at the same time,” since “a bishopric can have only one incumbent” (p. 537).  Who does he think is the one current pope, then?  The answer is obvious from the fact that Benedict explicitly refers to Francis as “Pope Francis” three times in the interview (at pp. 537 and 539).  He also refers to Francis as “my successor” (p. 539), and speaks of “the new pope” (p. 520).

Clearly, then, Benedict himself thinks that he is not the pope and that Francis is the pope.  Now, Benevacantists claim to submit loyally to the authority of the true pope, who, they say, is still Benedict.  They also think that Francis’s alleged status as an antipope explains his predilection for doctrinally problematic statements.  But then, if Benevacantists submit to Benedict’s authority, shouldn’t they accept his judgment that Francis is the pope and he is not?  Of course, that would be an incoherent position.  Benevacantists must, accordingly, judge that Benedict is simply mistaken.

But that just leads them out of one incoherent position and into another.  For if Benedict’s understanding of the nature of the papal office is so deficient that he does not even realize that he is himself pope, and instead embraces an antipope, how is he any more reliable as a teacher of doctrine than Francis?  Wouldn’t this grave doctrinal error indicate that he is an antipope?  Wouldn’t his being in communion with an antipope entail that he is also a schismatic, and indeed that he is in schism with himself?  Wouldn’t his failure to appoint cardinals validly to elect his successor (instead leaving it to the alleged antipope Francis invalidly to make such appointments) entail that he has essentially destroyed the papal office for all time, by making it impossible ever again to have a valid papal election?  How, given all of this, can Benevacantists still regard Benedict as a hero any more than they regard Francis as such?  How can they avoid going full sedevacantist?

Emeritus schmeritus

Benevacantists make much fuss about Benedict’s adoption of the “Pope Emeritus” title, taking it to be evidence that he intended to retain some aspect of the papal office.  I have explained elsewhere why the title indicates no such thing, and Benedict’s remarks in the interview confirm this.  Commenting on the use of “emeritus” to refer to a retired bishop, Benedict says that “the word ‘emeritus’ said that he had totally given up his office,” and retained only a “spiritual link to his former diocese” as its “former bishop” (p. 536, emphasis added).  In taking the “Pope Emeritus” title, he was simply extending this preexisting usage to the specific case of the bishop of Rome.

That entails, though, that Benedict understands himself to have “totally given up” the papal office, and takes Rome to be his “former diocese.”  This undermines claims to the effect that his resignation was invalid, on the grounds that he wrongly supposed that he could give up one aspect of the office (the “ministerium”) while retaining another (the “munus”).  He was supposing no such thing – again, if he had been, he could not think of Rome as his former diocese, the bishopric of which he had totally given up.

Speaking of the disappointment that his resignation caused, Benedict says that, nevertheless, “I was clear that I had to do it and that this was the right moment.  Otherwise, I would just wait to die to end my papacy” (p. 520).  Notice that he takes his resignation to have ended his pontificate no less decisively than his death would have ended it.  Needless to say, had he died, there would be no talk of him holding on to the “munus” while giving up the “ministerium.”  But if he takes his resignation to have ended his papacy just as completely as his death would have, then in that case too he cannot be said to have intended to hold on to the one while renouncing only the other.

Proponents of the munus/ministerium distinction claim that Benedict laid down only the functions of the papacy, while holding on to its ontological status, which they claim he thinks cannot be given up.  But in his interview with Seewald, Benedict explicitly rejects the very idea that these can be separated.  In response to the question whether failing capacity is a good reason to resign the papacy, Benedict says:

Of course, that might cause a misunderstanding about function.  The Petrine succession is not only linked to a function, but also concerns being.  So functioning is not the only criterion.  On the other hand, a pope must also do particular things… [I]f you are no longer capable it is advisable – at least for me, others may see it differently – to vacate the chair. (pp. 524-25)

Clearly, then, he takes the being and the function of the papacy to go hand in hand, so that if one renounces the one – “vacates the chair” – one thereby renounces the other.

It is also sometimes suggested that Benedict’s resignation was done under duress and thus invalidly.  To that he responds:

Of course you can’t submit to such demands. That is why I stressed in my speech that I was doing so freely. You can never leave if it means running away, you can never submit to pressure. You can only leave if no one is demanding it. And no one has demanded it in my time.  No one. It was a complete surprise to everyone. (p. 506)

There simply can be no reasonable doubt, then, that Benedict’s resignation met the very simple criteria set out in canon law: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone” (Can. 332 §2).  He clearly intended to renounce the office entirely, not merely in part.  And he did so freely.  End of story.

Prayer and providence

Benevacantists are extremely dismayed at the state of the Church and the world, and rightly so, because both are in ghastly shape.  It is this, I submit, that helps explain their tenacious attachment to a theory that collapses pretty quickly on close inspection.  Benevacantism seems to provide a solution to the difficulties posed by Francis’s problematic words and actions.  In fact, as I have shown in previous commentary on this subject, it makes things far, far worse.  But it can be emotionally satisfying, because it licenses criticizing Francis in a vituperative and disrespectful manner that would not be justifiable if he really is pope.

It is worth noting that Benedict too is clearly dismayed at the state of the Church and the world, and for the same reasons.  Asked about corruption in the Curia, the Vatileaks scandal, and the like, he makes it clear that the real problems run much deeper than such things:

However, the actual threat to the church, and so to the papacy, does not come from these things but from the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanist ideologies.  Contradicting them means being excluded from the basic social consensus.  A hundred years ago anyone would have found it absurd to speak of homosexual marriage.  Today anyone opposing it is socially excommunicated.  The same goes for abortion and creating human beings in a laboratory.  Modern society is formulating an anti-Christian creed and opposing it is punished with social excommunication.  It is only natural to fear this spiritual power of Antichrist and it really needs help from the prayers of a whole diocese and the world church to resist it. (pp. 534-35)

Clearly, Benedict does not agree with those supporters of Pope Francis who pretend that concern about these matters is nothing more than a reflection of American right-wing culture war politics.  On the contrary, these issues concern fundamental Christian morality and an opposition to it that derives from nothing less than the “power of Antichrist.”

Borrowing a metaphor from Gregory the Great, Benedict speaks of “the little ship of the church running into heavy storms” and proposes it as “an image of the church today, whose basic truth can hardly be disputed” (p. 537).  He also says, in response to a question about the condition of the Church:

St Augustine said of Jesus’ parables about the church that, on the one hand, many people in it are only apparently so, but are really against the church… [T]here are times in history in which God’s victory over the powers of evil is comfortingly visible, and times when the power of evil darkens everything. (p. 539)

Asked about whether Pope Francis should have answered the dubia submitted by four cardinals in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, Benedict declines to answer on the grounds that the question “goes into too much detail about the government of the church,” but also says:

In the church among all humanity’s troubles and the bewildering power of the evil spirit, the gentle power of God’s goodness can still be recognized.  Although the darkness of successive eras will never simply leave the joy of being a Christian unalloyed […] in the church and in the lives of individual Christians again and again there are moments in which we are deeply aware that the Lord loves us and that love means joy, is ‘happiness’. (p. 538)

It is hard not to see in this an attempt to offer encouragement to those disheartened by Amoris and its aftermath – and also an insinuation that the confusion that the controversy has caused in the Church reflects an attack by “the bewildering power of the evil spirit,” and the “darkness” of the present era.

If, as Benevacantists claim, Benedict really did think of himself as still possessing the munus of the papacy, it is inconceivable that he would not say and do more than he has done in the face of what he himself describes as the “heavy storms” currently facing the Church due to “the bewildering power of the evil spirit,” indeed the “spiritual power of Antichrist” which today “darkens everything.”  The only plausible explanation for why he has not done so is that he believes that Francis and Francis alone is pope and that any stronger words or actions on his part would threaten schism.  He obviously believes that weathering this storm requires prayer and trust in divine providence, rather than resort to crackpot theories.  It is ironic that many Benevacantists mock their critics for taking precisely this attitude which Benedict himself recommends.

This article was originally posted on Dr. Feser’s blog. It has been republished here with permission. 

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About Dr. Edward Feser 39 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press, August 2022), and Five Proofs of the Existence of God and is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both also published by Ignatius Press.


  1. Some maintain that there hasn’t been a pope publicly exercising his office since the death of Pope Pius XII. Of course, such “heresy” – even backed with facts – must not be considered by any allegedly Catholic publication.

    Given that to be a Catholic one must be a follower of the (legitimate) pope the question of who is the pope is one of the most important.

    I know for a fact that the “thesis” – and its details – outlined in my first paragraph is known to some of those who follow Bergoglio. It isn’t sedevacantist.

    To claim that it is would be similar to the nonsensical claim that the wasn’t any pope during those periods when the pope wasn’t living in Rome. I have had a conversation with a “priest” in which he implied that any group that is not affiliated with Rome must not be taken seriously. Such an argument displays a lack of knowledge of Church history.

  2. I dont care or understand the Pope/not Pope thing
    I do wonder what was meant by “Wouldn’t this grave doctrinal error indicate that he is an antipope? “???
    Is that some kind of fail safe clause?

    • Pope Benedict at the time said he was not retiring that he was muscled out because he would not do everything that Pope Francis has done. I believe Francis is the anti Pope and I pray for him and his soul

  3. We read from Emeritus Pope Benedict:
    “Modern society is formulating an anti-Christian creed and opposing it is punished with social excommunication [see below]. It is only natural to fear this spiritual power of Antichrist and it really needs help from the prayers of a whole diocese and the world church to resist it. (pp. 534-35)”

    Antichrist: figures don’t lie, but liars figure. Without minimizing the extensive guilt of some church members, looking outside we also have these additional statistics, from earlier in the book:

    “In Germany Professor Christian Pfeiffer from the Lower Saxony Criminological Research Institute stated that in the last 15 years out of 29,058 men condemned for sexual abuse, 30 had been employed by the Catholic Church, which was 0,1 per cent. In other words: 99.9 per cent had come from the secular sphere. A US government report of 62,000 people known to have been involved in paedophile cases in the year 2008 stated that the number of priests was 18, which was 0.03 per cent” (pp. 426-7) [etc.].

    Noting here, too, that according to the 2004 Jay Report researching sexual abuses within the Catholic Church, some 84 percent of the so-called pedophile record were actually cases of homosexuality. News twisting by termites within the Church itself. In “synodal path” Germany, those who no longer pay the annual federal church tax are branded as “apostates” and subjected literally to automatic “excommunication.”]

  4. If Benedict thought himself a tandem pope he wouldn’t take pains to dismiss that fantasy held by many. Feser’s analysis is intelligent, concise, and correct. “Power of Antichrist” darkening the minds of the faithful is two pronged, relative to the desperation of Feser’s ‘Benevacantists’, nonetheless significantly relevant to heavy storms and bewildering power of the Antichrist as worded by Benedict.
    When Benedict XVI announced his resignation lightning struck St Peter’s Basilica captured in a remarkable photo. At the time Benedict said the strike was an omen, for good or for bad. He apparently was prophetic. As well articulated by Dr Feser Benedict does not want to appear what the Benevacantists wish to believe, nor does he wish to precipitate a schism.
    As a plebeian commentator, I can muse [musing is great because it’s not exactly a committal] on what this might portend. My thoughts whirl around Benedict’s tempered, but obvious alarm, my concern since 2013. Ever since the lengthy dark silence when he appeared as supreme pontiff, and his messianic excoriation of ‘pharisee’ bishops attending the 1st synod on the family 2014. Since, we’ve suffered a universal degradation [more akin to depredation] of the permanence of inherent moral principles. All of them. Never in Church history. Principles of human acts revealed by Christ and conveyed by the Apostles. A new gospel, Amoris Laetitia, the still controversial document defended by Francis devotees as entirely benign and not responsible for the errors in interpretation. Although that negative interpretation obliquely verified in an exchange of letters between Pope Francis and the Argentine hierarchy inserted in Acta Apostolicae Sedis and pronounced with a flourish of high authority by Secy of State Parolin as binding doctrine. Although no one, among all the sage defenders of Francis can, to my knowledge, explain exactly what it is that is taught?
    It’s this kind of crap, pardon me, I meant policy that has plagued the Church and caused mass confusion. And worse, a march toward oblivion now formalized in the great journey of walking and talking together sharing ideas cranked out of lesser minds than the Apostles, and the army of saints, whose witness are rendered by this Vatican as museum curiosities available for the historian.
    To further my freedom of muse, didn’t Hildergard of Bingen record a vision of Mother Church crying out I’m giving birth, a demonic figure emerging from her womb? Didn’t the other player in this, Benedict XVI simply by declaration enter Hildergard into the martyrology of saints just prior to his resignation? It’s all fanciful speculation of course.

    • Benevacantism is now, 9 years into Francis’ ascendancy to the papacy a moot issue. There was viable indication, revealed in Austen Ivereigh’s 1st edition of The Great Reformer, of unlawful canvassing of the election much of it revealed by cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor Ivereigh’s employer and confidant. Ivereigh realized his error and immediately extracted relevant passages in the 2nd edition. The strong indication was that Bergoglio’s election was not canonical. Now, with time, and most involved dead it is virtually impossible to verify. Furthermore, on the issue of a contested election, Benedict XVI said somewhere to the effect, God forbid that we have a contested election over alleged irregularities. The results must be accepted. I’m not sure where that went insofar as documentation. Our better approach is to accept the legitimacy of Francis election, and not allow questions to distract us from rejecting what is illegitimate in his policies, from what is legitimate and necessary for our salvation.

  5. If the reader might say, how can Fr Morello be so rude to the Roman pontiff, I would say my comment is couched as a form of benevolent admonition by an unworthy servant of Christ, to the Pontiff, whose Chair I hold in reverence, and obedience. I submit a letter to a Roman pontiff by Catherine of Siena as an example:
    Letter of Saint Catherine of Siena to Gregory XI: In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary: Most holy and sweet father, your poor unworthy daughter Catherine in Christ sweet Jesus, commends herself to you in His precious Blood: with desire to see you a manly man, free from any fear or fleshly love toward yourself, or toward any creature related to you in the flesh; since I perceive in the sweet Presence of God that nothing so hinders your holy, good desire and so serves to hinder the honour of God and the exaltation and reform of Holy Church, as this. Therefore I beg you most gently on behalf of Christ crucified to be obedient to the will of God, for I know that you want and desire no other thing than to do His will, that this sharp rebuke fall not upon you: “Cursed be thou, for the time and the strength entrusted to thee thou hast not used.” I believe, father, by the goodness of God, and also taking hope from your holiness, that you will so act that this will not fall upon you (SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA AS SEEN IN HER LETTERS TRANSLATED & EDITED WITH INTRODUCTION BY VIDA DUTTON SCUDDER London, New York: J.M. Dent and E.P. Dutton, 1905).

  6. This article is largely “gaslighting,” (according to the new terminology, though I still prefer the phrase “creating a straw man argument”). I would imagine there are extremely few people who actually hold to the theory that Benedict never meant to relinquish the Keys of Peter to a successor. (Few in number though they might be extra-noisy.) And likewise, very few people question that Jorge Bergoglio was lawfully elected Pope. A more serious question – and one that is being asked increasingly – is far less conspiratorial or far-fetched, in my opinion. Given everything that he has said, written, and done, does Bergoglio still occupy the Chair? This will be a question for a future Council or Pontiff to determine, long after we are all gone, no doubt. However, as a reasonably well-informed and well-educated practicing Catholic, I can tell you quite simply that I no longer listen to anything Bergoglio has to say. Doing otherwise seems highly imprudent. It is no different from a Catholic in Chicago recognizing Cupich for what he is and keeping the man and his ideas out of one’s spiritual life.

  7. Does anyone really think that Catholics are plagued with sleepless nights wondering who’s truly Pope. Let’s get real.

  8. Pope Emeritus Benedict: “[T]he actual threat to the church, and so to the papacy, . . . come[s[ from . . . the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanist ideologies. Contradicting them means being excluded from the basic social consensus.” Isn’t it clear that, after years of casually denigrating many of the timeless truths of the Catholic Faith, Pope Francis adheres to the new dogmas of “the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanist ideologies”? And yet, we are to accept him as the Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth??? The “Benevacantists” may or may not be technically correct in their sedevacantist sentiments, but they are indeed correct in their open, full-voiced rejection of the doctrinal chaos being spouted by the current Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth.

  9. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s comment to Peter Seewald: “[T]he actual threat to the church, and so to the papacy, [comes] from the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanist ideologies.”

    After years of downgrading, even denigrating, many of the timeless truths of the Catholic Faith, Pope Francis has scandalized some Catholics to the point where they are having difficulty accepting him as the Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth (an appellation that the Church has long applied to the successors of Saint Peter). Pope Francis himself, over the years of his papacy, has managed to raise the suspicion, if not the certainty, that he adheres to the dogmas of “the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanist ideologies” that are, according to Pope Emeritus Benedict “the actual threat to the church and to the papacy.”

    Recently I wrote an article that I called “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” in which I chronicled the theories put forth by some of the “Benevacantists.” I framed the thesis of the article as a “dream” in the sense of Shakespeare’s fantasy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” feeling that I did not have presumptuous certainty of mind to present the sedevacantist thoughts of the “Benevacantists” as fact. At the end of the article, I called for answers to the questions raised by the sedevacantists:

    “These are, of course, the questions that urgently demand answers. If no one in the Church has the courage to ferret out and expose the answers, and act decisively on them, then we will not likely find our once-thriving Church again and will continue to trek along in the Midwinter Night’s Dream that currently haunts our Catholic reality.”
    Whether the sedevacantists and the “Benevacantists” are correct or incorrect in their positions is yet to be definitively settled, but it seems clear that the doings and sayings of the current “Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth” are fodder for their positions. God save us.

  10. I like to extend and apply in another matter the logic of Pope Benedict XVI’s thesis that there can only be one incumbent Pope, and that it is not himself but Pope Francis. BXVI’s Summorum Pontificum’s innovation – many call it a liturgical and theological gymnastics by the then reigning Pope – of introducing the two forms of the Roman Rite, the ordinary and the extradordinary, can now be rightly seen as an abnormality and duly called as such and rescinded by Pope Francis’ Traditiones Custodes and Desiderio Desideravi. BXVI’s “only one incumbent” reasoning on the papacy can also be theologically applied on the ceremonial order and ritual form of the Roman Rite. By following the “lex credendi, lex orandi” (law of belief, law of prayer) principle, Pope Francis has correctly taught that the current Vatican II law of belief entails that the Vatican II law of prayer and ceremonial form of the Roman Rite is the “only one incumbent.”

  11. Church entering into final trial. “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres…churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord” (Akita 1973). ““We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of divine Providence; it is trial which the whole Church, and the Polish Church in particular, must take up. It is a trial of not only our nation and the Church, but, in a sense, a test of 2,000 years of culture and Christian civilization with all of its consequences for human dignity, individual rights, human rights and the rights of nations” –JPII (Karol Wojtyla, 1976). Church corrupted from within.

  12. I would like to add for consideration, to the list of difficulties already being noted, the following: The same way Fr. Benedict complained of an isolation among the Curia and within the Vatican, etc., so also, the forces at work can create “bubbles” around Pope Francis, for example, in what they bring to his attention and by what they withhold. I am suggesting that the unpopularity of the Pope is not the cause of these things and the popularity of the Pope -alone- is not a defense against them. The people who have the mind to manufacture perceptions are at work all the time.

  13. Well I have wondered if Francis resigns, as he has lately suggested he might – mightn’t the papacy revert automatically to Benedict, who would be free to accept or reaffirm his resignation? The stress would probably be too much for him but it might be nice to get some the worst of Francis’s edicts and polemics reversed before the next conclave.

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