In this post George E. Demacopoulos, author of The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, looks at a neglected aspect of Pope Benedict XVI's retirement.
Benedict and St. Peter
Pope Benedict XVI surprised the Christian world when he announced that he would resign as bishop of Rome, head of the Roman Catholic Church. The move is virtually unprecedented—while several popes in history left office prior to their death, those men were forced from office, almost always against their will. In some cases, ex-pontiffs became bishops of other cities as a consolation prize. But Pope Benedict’s decision to retire and yet remain in residence at the Vatican likely opens a Pandora’s box of canonical and theoretical questions concerning the singular grace of authority that is understood to accompany the office of the See of Rome by virtue of its connection St. Peter, “prince of the Apostles.”
Despite the media frenzy that has ensued in the wake of the resignation—not to mention the one that will erupt if the next pontiff is selected from the Global South—there is one significant aspect of the pontiff’s statement that has received nary a media blip, but conveys the core conundrum that advocates of papal singularity now face. Four times in the very brief statement outlining his decision to resign, Pope Benedict referred to the special relationship between his office and St. Peter the Apostle, whose privileged position in the apostolic community is believed by Roman Catholics to transfer mystically to the bishops of Rome, upon their assumption of the office.
Since the fifth century, the basic argument for papal preeminence has run something like a syllogism: (1) Jesus Christ appointed the Apostle Peter as the head of the Church; (2) Peter was the first bishop of Rome; therefore (3) subsequent bishops of Rome “inherit” Peter’s ministry and, therefore, his authority. While most of us are familiar with the claim that the Roman bishop is “Peter’s heir,” many are less familiar with the long history by which the connection between Peter, Rome, and the Roman See came to be. It is a complicated story full of political intrigue, theological debate, and a great deal of rhetorical invention. Indeed, if there is any consistent theme in the development of the papal/Peter connection it is that each escalation of the claims of papal preeminence that emerged in the formative period between 350 and600 CE was precipitated by a domestic or international embarrassment for the bishop of Rome. For most of late antiquity, the iterations of papal authority via Peter always reflected aspirations for ecclesiastical prestige rather than actual authority or respect.
And while I believe that Pope Benedict has demonstrated real humility in his acknowledgment that he does not have the physical strength to carry on the task of Peter’s ministry, the very idea that he could resign poses something of a challenge to the notion that the bishop of Rome is somehow different from the rest of us. In other words, if in assuming the papal office, the candidate is mystically graced to become the Vicar of Peter, prince of the Apostles, such that he alone has the authority to bind and loose sin (a frequent medieval assertion), can such a person actually “retire” from that state of grace? If he is only retiring from the responsibility of active ministry, but retains the state of grace, how can his successor be understood to also possess it, with fifteen hundred years of rhetorical precedent to suggest that only one man inherits Peter’s principium? While I believe that Pope Benedict has acted heroically in his recognition of personal limitation, he has unwittingly called into question the very theory that underpins the belief that the bishop of Rome has a singular claim on the legacy of St. Peter.
George E. Demacopoulos is Associate Professor of Theology and Codirector of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity is scheduled for release in June 2013