Theological commotion and abdication of a pope

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

The resignation of Benedict XVI in February 2013, will remain one of the main events of the period after Vatican II, maybe even a key event in the sense that it most likely has an explicative value which exceeds Pope Ratzinger’s motivations.

In the twentieth issue of Res Novæ, in June 2020, we talked about this strange situation created in the Church by the absence of condemnation of heresies. We presented the German example of spouses in mixed marriages eager to receive together the Eucharist, an example much more serious that the provocations of the German synodal Way: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had gathered representatives of bishops favorable and hostile to the permission in order to tell them… that Rome was not deciding anything and was asking them to find amongst themselves “an agreement as unanimous as possible.” The ecclesiastic authority thus refuses to decide: positively, through statements directly or indirectly referring to the charism of the infallibility in instances when the direction of the Christian people demands it; negatively – which makes it the same – by avoiding the condemnation of those who stray away from the confession of the Faith. De facto, the authority refrains from playing the role of an instrument of unity (at least of unity in the classical sense), and presents itself as the manager of a certain diversity. Can’t it be seen as a sort of moral abdication, just as the event around Benedict XVI have shown it to be possible?

Since the Vatican II earthquake, a succession of fictional works have actually appeared based precisely on the theme of a resignation of the pope. Are these works the expression of a sort of nightmare now inhabiting the Catholic collective subconscious? In any case, let us look at three of these fictional works.

In 2011, Nanni Moretti’s movie, Habemus papam. Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is elected to the papacy but immediately falls into a depression which postpones the announce of his election. After several episodes (he is taken to see a psychiatrist, then later, is found in a theater), he finally appears on the balcony of Saint Peter only to decline the responsibility of the office: “I am not the leader you need,” as silence sets on Saint Peter’s square and the whole church.

In 1998 was published a book written by Jacques Paternot and Gabriel Veraldi, Le dernier pape[1] (The last pope), a very well constructed anticipation novel, though licentious in many ways, which tells the story of a Brazilian cardinal being elected after the death of John Paul II taking the name of Mathew I. The new elected pope gives his consent for priests to marry, to contraception, to women priesthood, to allow access to communion for remarried divorcees. After all this, the only thing left for him to do is to draw the conclusion of all his “magisterial” decisions: thus he calls the gathering of a new council to perfect Vatican II, a new council which abolishes the sovereign pontificate.

Certainly, the most curious work and the earliest in this category is a novel of Guido Morselli, Roma senza Papa[2] (Rome without the Pope) -, written right after the Council, in 1966 and 1967 (all of Morselli’s novels were rejected by publishers at the time and only published after his suicide in 1974). The book is firstly and clearly an expression of the deep trauma generated by Vatican II. The storyline, supposedly told by Dom Walter, a Swiss priest who is married, though leaning towards traditionalism (he wears the cassock), takes place in the year 2000. The successor of Paul VI, Libero 1 (ecclesiastic celibacy is abolished, decision of the pope now have to be approved by the Synod, etc.), is succeeded by John XXIV who continues along the same line of reforms acted by his predecessor: some theologians speak of “socialidarianism”, of the introduction of totemism in  religious practice; dialogology teaches silence is the most advanced form of intra-religious dialogue; some young priests parade wearing a black armband to proclaim the theology of the death of God; a student of the Gregorian University, wanting to teach, is actually an atheist (the idea of God is subjective), and his superiors are not offended by his position; etc.

In fact, and this is actually the real theme of the book, John XXIV no longer carries out his office, and to make it more clear, he has left Rome and settled in a house, an inn, in Zagarolo, 30 km from the City where he leads a life Morselli qualifies of bucolic but which we would call with today’s words an ecological way of life.

At the end of the novel, Dom Walter meets him with a group of twelve other priests. The Pope addresses them in a short improvised speech, which we could compare to a present day homily at Santa Marta, on the following theme: God is not a priest. Ambiguous teaching which can express a self-evident fact or, on the contrary, target the priesthood of Christ whose humanity is assumed by the Divine Person of the Word, and thus advocate the most radical de-clericalisation: Christ is not a priest.

This is non-infallible teaching could think Dom Walter, as we also say with relief of Amoris lætitia n. 301 (all those living in adultery publicly can remain in this state without committing a grave sin) or of Nostra Ætate n. 2 (the Church respects non-Christian religions). A teaching which thus does not teach strictly speaking, and that is in fact an abdication comparable to those who imagine these fictions. But a teaching which all the same does teach, in the mist of a theologic commotion very similar to what these same fictions describe.

Rev. Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] L’Âge d’Homme publisher.
[2] Adelphi, Milan 1974, in Italian.