An Expanded Petrine Ministry?: The Pope Emeritus and the Petrine Office

On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his resignation from the papacy. The historic moment was described by Cardinal Angelo Sodano as “a bolt from out of the blue,” underlined by a very real lightning bolt which struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica later that evening.[1] With the subsequent election of Pope Francis, the Church has seen—for the first time since the Western Schism­­­—the spectacle of two living Popes, each retaining the title, style, and dress of the Roman Pontiff. Although Benedict has largely remained out of the limelight since the succession of Francis, to whom he has promised obedience,[2] the novelty of the present situation has naturally prompted various attempts at theological explanation for the very existence of a “Pope emeritus.” One theory holds that in renouncing the Petrine office, Pope Benedict has in fact taken up a new office in the Church, a “Johannine office”[3] complementary to that of Peter. Another theory maintains that the papal resignation has de facto effected an “expanded [Petrine] ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.”[4]

Although neither theory is entirely satisfactory and all speculation must remain provisional until the Church rules on the question, the better theological explanation seems to be the second. First, there is no such thing as a “Johannine office” in the history of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the words of Benedict at the time of his resignation, as well as the testimony of Archbishop Gänswein, indicate that he understands himself not to have instituted a new office, but to have continued in a limited capacity to exercise the munus Petrinum, the office of Peter, in his service of prayer for the Church. Finally, the official legislation on bishops emeritusissued by the Congregation for Bishops under Pope John Paul II in 2004, offers a possible theological parallel, insofar as those bishops are said also to continue to participate in the munus episcoporum after retirement.

The office of Peter is established by Christ himself: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). As the Second Vatican Council reiterated, Christ “placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion.”[5] The Pope is “the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church.”[6] This headship and primacy of Peter, attested since the earliest days of Christianity by such witnesses as St. Clement of Rome (c. 80 AD), is of necessity a unique office in the hierarchical constitution of the Church. As Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam sanctam has it, “This one and unique Church, therefore, has not two heads, like a monster, but one body and one head, namely, Christ, and his vicar, Peter’s successor.”[7] There is neither historical precedent nor theological warrant for a parallel and complementary “Johannine office,” any more than a Matthean, Barnabite or Pauline office, alongside the munus Petrinum. On the contrary, these apostles and their successors exercise the common munus apostolorum cum et sub Petro, with and beneath Peter.[8] Therefore, Robert Moynahan’s claim that Pope Benedict, after his resignation, “would now carry out a slightly different office, a ‘Johannine’ office,”[9] raises more problems than it solves. There exists no such office for Benedict to accept, and the idea that the Pope emeritus “would carry out the office of John, not of Peter”[10] effectively establishes a second “pontificate of John,” giving the body of Christ a second head.

At the time of his resignation, Pope Benedict indicated that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, [were] no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry [munus Petrinum]” and therefore declared his decision to “renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.”[11] He was clear about the juridical effects of his resignation: “The See of Saint Peter … will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked.”[12] However, having once accepted the Petrine ministry, Benedict says, 

I was engaged always and forever by the Lord … 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 am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. 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.[13]

The active exercise of the munus Petrinum, then, including the power of governance proper to that office for the governance of the Church, belongs entirely to Benedict’s successor in the See of Peter: “The plena potestas, the plenitudo potestatis [full power, incarnate authority] is in the hands of Pope Francis. He is the man who has right now the succession of Peter.”[14] Benedict, however, sees himself as retaining a principal part of the munus Petrinum, “the service of prayer” for the Church. This aspect of the Petrine ministry was bestowed by the Lord in his final commission to St. Peter: “Strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). To pray for the Church as her head is not a new “Johannine office,” but the properly contemplative dimension of the one and only Petrine office. Therefore, Archbishop Gänswein maintains that Benedict “has not abandoned the Office of Peter — something which would have been entirely impossible for him after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005.”[15] Rather, since the election of Francis, the Petrine office has become de facto an “expanded ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.”[16] There is indeed one head of the Church, Pope Francis, the legitimately elected Roman Pontiff who possesses the plenitude potestatis and exercises the active ministry of Peter. But there is also one “Pope emeritus,” sharing in the contemplative dimension of the Petrine ministry. 

For his part, Pope Francis has expressed his gratitude for this service: “Benedict is in the monastery praying … He is the wise grandfather. He is the man that protects my shoulders and back with his prayer.”[17] Indeed, Francis has speculated in the future, there may be multiple Popes emeritus “like the bishops emeriti … Possibly there could be two or three.”[18] Therefore, the task ahead for theologians and canon lawyers in the Curia is the official legislation of the ministry of “Pope emeritus,” as the Congregation for Bishops issued in 2004 for bishops emeritus. The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops indicates that the reigning bishop and bishops emeritus are to maintain a fraternal relationship: “The diocesan Bishop will value the good that the Bishop Emeritus can accomplish, for the Church in general and for the local diocese in particular, through his prayer, perhaps through suffering accepted with love, through the example of his priestly life and through his counsel when it is requested.”[19] The bishop emeritus, for his part, is instructed to “avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan Bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the diocesan community,” since “the diocesan Bishop alone is the head of the diocese, responsible for its governance.”[20]

In summary, to speak of a “Johannine office” is inappropriate with respect to the Pope emeritus. This office does not exist in the tradition of the Church, and its institution would only raise the difficulty of a novel “parallel authority” alongside that of Peter. The better theological interpretation, advanced by Gänswein and indicated by Benedict’s own self-understanding, is that the Pope emeritus continues to be of service to the Church in his prayer, suffering, example, and counsel, exercising the contemplative dimension of the munus Petrinum in strengthening his brethren, including his own successor. This situation, although unprecedented in the See of Peter, closely reflects the reality lived by diocesan bishops and bishops emeritus around the world.

The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops specifies the “rights of the Bishop Emeritus in relation to the Episcopal Munera,”[21] which include preaching and the celebration of the sacraments, as well as sustenance and a place to live within the diocese he has served. The question to be resolved in future legislation concerns precisely those rights of the Pope emeritus in relation to the munus Petrinum. Will future Popes emeritus be permitted to continue to live in the Vatican after retirement, or to speak publicly and publish written works, as Benedict has done? These are thorny issues that the Church must soon answer, guided by the principles of fraternal relationship and rights of bishops emeritus outlined above by the Congregation for Bishops, always taking care to safeguard the primacy of the one Successor of Peter as the source of unity of the Church.


[1] Diane Montagna, “Complete English Text: Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech,” Aleteia (blog), May 30, 2016,

[2] “Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Armenia,” Catholic News Agency, June 26, 2016,

[3] Dr. Robert Moynahan, “Letter #44, 2015: Benedict in Prayer,” Inside the Vatican (blog), October 15, 2015,

[4] Montagna, “Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech.”

[5] Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (November 21, 1964), §18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Boniface VIII, Bull Unam sanctam (November 18, 1302), in Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum: Compendium of Creeds, Definitions and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, eds. Peter Hünermann, Robert Fastiggi, Anne Englund Nash, 43rd edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 872. 

[8] Congregation for Bishops, Apostolorum successores [Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops] (February 22, 2004)introduction. See also §11.

[9] Moynahan, “Letter #44.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Benedict XVI, Declaratio (10 February 2013). 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Benedict XVI, General Audience (27 Feb 2013). Emphasis added.

[14] Maike Hickson, “Interview: Archbishop Gänswein on Benedict, The Two Popes, and Prophecy,” OnePeterFive (blog), June 28, 2016,

[15] Montagna, “Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Armenia,” Catholic News Agency.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Apostolorum Successores, §226.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Apostolorum Successores, §227.

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