by Br. Alexis Bugnolo
Father John Zuhlsdorf, who is known on the Net simply as, “Father Z”, from his famous blog by the same name, did something the other day which only a handful of Catholic priests have dared to do in the last 8 years: he spoke publicly about the controversy over the “resignation” of Pope Benedict XVI.
His post is entitled, “The Question of Two Pope Bothers a lot of people. Some Thoughts” and it was published on June 29, 2021.
I know at least 4 priests who would not have the courage, even though they privately recognize Benedict XVI as the true pope.
And so, for that daring, Father Zuhlsdorft deserves praise and applause from all Catholics everywhere.
We live in a time when the clergy, alas, have fallen nearly totally silent about the truths of the Faith and about the errors and falsehoods of our day. And of the greatest of these errors is that which regards understanding what happened — or, as Ann Barnhardt rightly says in a more correct language, what did NOT happen — on Feb. 11, 2013, in the Sala Clementina, from approximately 11:30 AM local time until about 11:40 P.M..
The Vatican announced that Benedict XVI had resigned. Benedict XVI three years later, in his official biography interview by Peter Seewald, however, would explicitly deny that he had abdicated. In other words, he is still the pope, but some sort of revolution or coup d’etat has taken place at the Vatican. A thing which is undeniable by all, since there are two “Popes” at the Vatican.
But since Father Zuhlsdorf has publicly opined upon the matter, and since he has in true humility admitted, as a prologue, that he is not an expert on the controversy, I will make some comments here about what I see are the grave errors which pepper his discussion and keep anyone reading it from arriving at a certain and true conclusion regarding which is the true pope.
Where Father Hunwicke got mislead
Father Zuhlsdorf opens by citing a historical example of a case in which there were two popes, believing by such reference to obtain some light on how to explain the current situation. So he cites another rather well known Catholic priest blogger, Father Hunwicke, a convert, who lives in the United Kingdom.
Here I follow the citation of Father Zuhlsdorf:
Over at his splendid blog, Fr. John Hunwicke had an engaging piece provoked by the whirling of your planet back to the annual Feast of St. Silverius, Pope and Martyr (+537).
Fr. H used this occasion to look into a question which vexes many a thoughtful Catholic these days: two popes at the same time. Possible? Fact: Francis is going around doing pope things while Benedict lives in the Vatican Gardens still looking a lot like The Pope. It’s a head-scratcher.
NB: Some people wave away questions about “two popes” or an invalid resignation. To my mind, it is wrong-headed to gloss over hard questions that vex people, to turn a blind eye to them and whistle a happy tune with fingers deep into one’s ears. There are people who are really upset by this situation. We have an obligation to tackle these questions head on in order to put people at ease about them. Let’s do that.
Back to Fr Hunwicke’s piece.
Background first: In 537, the Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius entered Rome and deposed Pope Silverius who had been elected the previous year. Belisarius brought in his own guy, Vigilius, and made him Pope while Silverius was still alive (for a few months, at least). So, who was the real Pope?
Father Zuhlsdorf’s recourse to a historical example seems a reasonable way to proceed. But I submit that it is colored by the fact that he has grown up in the United States and come to believe that the Common Law principle of precedent is a good principle to apply in a dubious legal case of two popes.
Here Father gets it completely wrong in his presumption. Because the Roman Church has always chosen Roman Law not Common Law — which by the way did not even exist for some 800 years after the faith came to Rome — as Her legal system. In Roman law, precedent has nearly no worth. What matters is what is the statuary law at the time a dispute arises, not what happened in past cases when the laws where different.
And such is the case of the example brought up by Father Hunwicke. Thus, whatever happened in that case, simply has no bearing whatsoever in regard to a solution in the present case. This is true because in the present case, the laws which bear on determining whether the renunciation of Pope Benedict XVI was valid or not, were promulgated in 1983 in the New Code, which expressly abrogated and obrogated all past laws. Whereas, the case cited by Father Hunwicke took place some 1400 years before when there were no canons or laws regarding papal resignations, forced or otherwise.
Dom Guéranger’s quip is worthless and misleading in this debate
Now, in a controversy over law or rights, it is important to cite authorities. No one denies that. But the value of the authority depends on whether he has said anything pertinent to the debate.
Now there is no doubt that Dom Prosper Guéranger is a man worth citing. But since he died before the canons of the Church were codified in 1917 by Pope Benedict XV, he obviously approached the problem of a papal schism differently than we do today. He had to, because there was no law to appeal to.
So citing this very learned Benedictine, as Father Zuhlsdorf does in citing Father Hunwicke, is again simply useless, even if the argument sounds good:
Hunwicke provides something from dom Gueranger concerning Silverius and Vigilius (my emphases):
“The inevitable play of human passions, interfering in the election of the Vicar of Christ, may perchance for a while render uncertain the transmission of spiritual power. But when it is proved that the Church … acknowledges in the person of a certain pope, until then doubtful, the true Sovereign Pontiff, this her very recognition is a proof that, from that moment at least, the occupant of the Apostolic See is as such invested by God himself.”
Do you get that? No matter how strange a path by which some fellow became the one with his “bum in the chair”, when “the Church” acknowledges him, then he is the legitimate Pope.
It is simply useless, because we cannot pretend today that there is no law determining whether Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is valid or not or makes him no longer the pope or not! Nearly all who claim Bergoglio is the pope do entertain such a pretense, because if you don’t then you have to recognize that the law gives you no leg to stand on.
But that is not the only error, implicit in the citation of Dom Guéranger. Because, when we cannot know the facts of a case or the moral or legal principles by which it can be solved with certitude, we are forced to resort to reflex principles which indicate a probable or more probable solution.
So Dom Guéranger was right to resort to a reflex principle in a case in which he could not have known the facts well or personally. But we are wrong to do so, since we can easily have the facts of the case with certitude and can easily find the code of canon law in Latin which sets out the principles by which we can arrive with certitude at the correct answer.
A Shameful error in reading Latin
Now if anyone sees the Latin term, which is key in this controversy, and mistranslates it as office — for wont of a better term — I as a Latinist can excuse him, because I have done the same. But since Father Zuhlsdorf is rather famous for his Latinity, I will have to say that when he renders munus as office, it is a shameful error.
Admittedly Father Zuhlsdorf claims no expertise in this debate, and so perhaps does not know that Canon 17 explains how to understand the word munus, but after all that has been written, which is not hard to find on the internet, it is simply irresponsible to cite a translation of munus as office without at least pointing out the translation is wrong or insufficient to understand this controversy.
For if munus meant office, then in canon 145 §1, the Code would not define officium as a munus, under a certain sort of specification. It would simply say they mean the same thing. But it does not, therefore, in the mind of the legislator we must understand, as Canon 17 requires us, that the words do NOT mean the same thing.
And if you want to know what munus means, you can avail yourself of the only academic paper every submitted in a Conference at Rome, which followed the norm of canon 17 to discover what it means. And you can read it here. It was delivered 21 months ago and has never been refuted by anyone, anywhere.
Father Zuhlsdorf then wanders into quacksand
At this point, the learned Father Zuhlsdorf, who evidently does not know the principles of Canon Law, wanders off into speculating that the Office of the Pope can be separated from the Office of the Bishop of Rome.
This speculation has found favor and pleasure among some who are participating in this debate. But out of respect for them, I will not mention them by name.
Suffice it to say, that the office of Peter cannot be separated from the Bishopric of Rome, when both are understood properly, that is, according to the correct understanding of their terms. We can know this with certainty, because Vatican I infallibly declared that the Pope has no authority over the deposit of the Faith. And the Deposit of the Faith includes Apostolic Tradition. Apostolic Tradition means what the Apostles handed down, left to us, for our instruction. And obviously the office of St. Peter was left to the Church of Rome BY THE APOSTLE PETER. Hence it cannot be alienated from it by anyone.
To say otherwise is simple heresy. For it implies that Apostolic Tradition can be overthrown, corrected or changed. Now that is the doctrine of Bergoglio (e. g., in regard to the Our Father), but it is not Catholic.
And to imply that Pope Benedict XVI intended that, is not only unsubstantiated by any explicit statement, but requires a reading of his Declaratio of Feb. 11, 2013 which is artificial and strained at the best, and totally imaginary at the worst.
You do not have to play games of theological speculation, to find out whether the renunciation of Pope Benedict XVI is valid or not. Simply read canon 332 and the text of the Declaratio and it is clear enough, if you want to see it, and if you are not a priest who is naming Bergoglio as the pope in the canon of the mass.
Father Zuhlsdorf’s exposition of the controversy does contain some accurate parts, where he lays out the basic argument for the invalidity of the Declaratio to cause Benedict XVI to no longer be pope.
But for the most part his exposition is rambling and confusing and seems inconclusive.
I object strongly at his blasphemy of the Holy Ghost, in saying that that Divine Person might rig a papal election with the intent of giving us a bad pope. God cannot will evil. To say so, is to call God the Devil.
And I demure at the entire post by Father Zuhlsdorf, because I think that if a priest open his mouth, he should at least give clear doctrine and not muddle the waters.
But what is lacking is grave also in this, that Father seems to think, by his noticeable omission, that if a priest names someone he doubts is the pope in the Canon of the Mass that he is not gravely sinning, or that if he names someone whom God knows is not the pope, he is not gravely sinning. This omission in the article is very shocking, because it pretends to a form of Catholicism in which the manner of the offering of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is one which is acceptable to God when it is rubrically correct, regardless of whom it is offered in communion with, a true or false pope. And that makes a mockery of the Divine Majesty.