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Q: Did Pope Benedict XVI validly resign even though he did not renounce the munus

A: As many of us will recall, on Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world when, after noting his advancing age and declining health, he announced: " … For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom 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."

The 1983 Code of Canon Law had already accounted for the possibility – however theoretical it might have seemed at the time of the drafting of the code – for a pope to step down.

As Canon 332, Paragraph 2 tells us: "Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone."

Thus, canonically only two elements are necessary for a papal resignation to be valid: 1. That the resignation come about because of a truly free choice on the part of the Holy Father – e.g., a resignation made under threat of violence would not "count" – and 2. That this resignation be "properly manifested." This latter aspect means that it should be public and obvious what the incumbent pope intends to do. Or, in other words, the pope privately expressing a wish to resign to a handful of close confidants would not affect a valid resignation; nor would a papal resignation take effect if the only evidence of it were rumors or secondhand accounts.

As far as anyone can reasonably discern, Pope Benedict XVI's resignation plainly fulfilled both criteria. There was no evidence that Benedict was coerced or pressured to resign, and he specifically mentioned that he was making this choice "with full freedom." And Pope Benedict clearly manifested his intention to step down; his resignation announcement was made at a meeting of the College of Cardinals and in front of several journalists.

At the time, different people had different feelings on the appropriateness of a contemporary pope deciding to abdicate for reasons of physical infirmity and old age. However, the general consensus among canon lawyers was that this resignation was nevertheless lawful and effective. Still, as you note, there was some limited speculation that Benedict XVI might not have resigned validly.

One such argument was that the resignation was invalid because Benedict supposedly did not resign the "munus" – a Latin term that, depending on the context, can be best translated into English as "office" or "duties" – of the papacy explicitly.

But, as I see it, this argument doesn't hold water because the papacy is technically nothing more than an "office" (albeit a deeply significant one). That is, unlike priestly or episcopal ordination, which can be primarily understood as a personal, sacramental configuring to Christ independent of any "job" or "position" that a priest or bishop might eventually hold, at the end of the day the role of pope is in some sense "just a job." There is no sacrament that makes a bishop into a pope; a newly elected pope essentially just accepts a new position as the head of a new diocese, the Diocese of Rome.

Therefore, if a pope is announcing his resignation from the papacy, it's already very strongly implied that he intends to renounce the papacy as an office or "munus," even if he doesn't specifically use the exact word "munus.”

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to