One Pope, Indisputably

For the world’s largest group of Christians, Roman Catholics, the year 2023 brings a big change. In fact, for anyone interested in Christianity and the papacy—which is much of the world, actually, Christian and non-Christian—it is a big change.

For the first time since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February 2013 and the subsequent election of Pope Francis, there will be, at last, and indisputably, one pope.

The key word is “indisputably.” Unfortunately, there has been debate over whether there are two “popes” of sort ever since Benedict’s resignation.

Here’s how it happened:

On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict stunned the world by resigning—the first pope to do so in six centuries, namely, since Gregory XII in 1415. He formally announced: “I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”

That seemed clear enough. Right?

But unlike Gregory XII in 1415, Pope Benedict did not leave entirely, or so it seemed. Strikingly, he took a very unique title: “Pope Emeritus.” To some, the “emeritus” label elicited a shrug. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, after all, was a scholar, an academic. Titles like “professor emeritus” are common in that world.

But that wasn’t all. In fact, Fr. Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, announced two weeks later (February 26) that Benedict would not only assume the title “pope emeritus” or “Roman pontiff emeritus,” but would keep the title “His Holiness.” Hmm.

The next day, February 27, in what turned out to be his final general audience of his pontificate, Benedict made a remarkable statement: “The ‘always’ is also a ‘for ever’—there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on…. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter.”

That statement left some scratching their heads, including perhaps Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, who would be elected as the new pope on March 13, 2013.

Five years later, in a September 2018 piece, New York Times reporter Jason Horowitz observed: “But Benedict, the first pope to resign in almost 600 years, refused to fully renounce the papacy, taking the title ‘pope emeritus’ and continuing to live in the Vatican.”

Likewise, Italian scholar Fabrizio Grasso asserted: “From a purely logical point of view it is difficult to maintain that the pope resigned totally and completely from his ministry, and we are legitimized in forming this idea precisely because of his own declarations.”

We are indeed.

Antonio Socci, a prominent Italian “Vaticanista” journalist, dubbed it a “non-resignation of the papacy.” In 2019, Socci published an intriguing book, titled, The Secret of Benedict XVI: Is He Still the Pope?

Well, in January 2023, with Pope Benedict’s death on New Year’s Eve, we have an indisputable answer: no. The pope is Francis, solo, with no contender.

The changing of the guard is complete. What awaits us next is entirely in Francis’ hands. The world, Catholic and non-Catholic, will be watching.


For American Radio Journal, I’m Paul Kengor. Check out my book, A Pope and a President.