Monday, February 25, 2013

What do you call a former Pope?

As some of you may be aware, I am a proud member of the Protocol and Diplomacy International - Protocol Officers Association.  This article appeared two weeks ago in their weekly members newsletter and was written by our President Mr. Chris Young and I thought it was really interesting.  I look forward to your thoughts as always.

Of all the protocol questions surrounding such a remarkable story, this one is perhaps the most enigmatic at the moment.  The simplest answer is that we will have to wait and see.  Ultimately, the incoming pontiff will decide what title, style, dignity and even name Benedict XVI may use.

To answer this question more fully, I consulted PDI-POA's vice president of marketing and communications and one of the world's most renowned experts in this arena, Mr. Robert Hickey.  Robert is the author of the acclaimed Honor & Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address, which should be one of the first books to fill any protocol professional's library.

In the book, Robert notes the pope's full and formal title: His Holiness The Pope, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop of Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God.

The secret to what we may call Benedict XVI on 1 March may lie in his full formal title, which we assume to run with the office and not with the person.  Robert stresses what we often say about any office where only one person can hold it at a given time.  The Pope is the Pope.  How can there be two Supreme Pontiffs of the Universal Church?  How can there be two Sovereigns of Vatican City?  There cannot.  That defies logic.  There is no more room for two popes in the Catholic Church than there is for two presidents in the United States, two prime ministers in the Japan or two queens in the United Kingdom.

One option would be for him to revert to his pre-papacy title and name: His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  Presumably his elevation to the rank of cardinal, bestowed years ago by Blessed John Paul II, was personal in nature, and thus one he retains and to which he may now return.  (An analog would be Colin Powell, who, upon leaving his service as Secretary of State returned to his personal rank of General Powell.) 

Or, since the Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, he could follow the same tradition as retired prelates and be called His Eminence The Bishop Emeritus of Rome.  This seems much more likely than Pope Emeritus.  And, in fact, Rev. Lombardi indicated in a press conference that the Pope was likely to take some sort of emeritus title.

In either of these scenarios, the Vatican will face an interesting question of precedence.  Where does a former pontiff rank on its list?  Given his age alone, 85, Benedict would likely be quite high among the seniority list within the College of Cardinals.  However, if he were not the senior-most cardinal, either by age or position and portfolio, does he get a "post-pontifical boost" to rank just under the new pope, so that he would be primus inter pares, a cardinal who is first among equals?

And then, Robert raises a question that cuts protocol with the sharp sword of religion and spirituality:  In Catholicism, the Pope "is infallible in matters of faith and morals."  Given that, "it seems hard to believe he'd be lowered from this highest of all statuses once he got there..."  But, in practice, that seems to be the certain course: on 28 February, he is supreme; on 1 March, he is not.  Perhaps that question is better left with the curia and the theologians.  Or perhaps it is better left to Benedict himself.  Watch carefully at the Installation Mass in late March and see if the former pope sits among the retired cardinals and, at the appropriate time, rises, walks to the throne of the new pontiff and pledges his allegiance... by kissing the ring he once wore.  That might be all the answer you need.

The Vatican tacitly acknowledges that this is an issue but has not yet tendered the answer.  As Robert summarizes, "Since the Church has not had someone of his 'soon-to-be-established rank,' the courtesies are undefined."

This story is certain to produce more lessons for us in the coming weeks, months and years.  For instance, what happens when Benedict ultimately dies?  Is his funeral Mass celebrated as if he were merely a cardinal or a former pontiff?