Some assert that his title and dress are far too confusing, but this is nonsense

If you’re anything like me, then you’ll be sick and tired of a certain kind of Catholic pedant. You know the sort. Obsessed with the precise rubrics of clerical dress. Convulsed with horror at perceived misuses of traditional titles and honorifics: “Mgr So-and-so is wearing the wrong colour socks! … Doesn’t His Eminence know that it’s beneath the dignity of his office to introduce himself in that way? … And are those phylacteries of regulation breadth?”

This attitude can take many forms, and not always from quarters that you might expect. There’s a particularly virulent strain of it about at the moment. It unites voices – a great many of them otherwise very sensible – from all points on the theological spectrum. Blogs, tweets, articles in august periodicals (including, I dare say, this one), even – most recently – gatherings of fine canon lawyers … all deeply, deeply, oh-so-very-deeply worried about the way a certain priest is both dressed and addressed.

Let me explain.

In Rome there lives a certain holy and humble cleric. At the ripe old age of 90 he spends his days in prayer, receiving visitors, puttering around the garden and (probably) binge-watching episodes of his favourite TV drama Inspector Rex (so far as I can work out, an Austrian version of Due South, with the Mountie replaced by a crime-solving Alsatian). Judging by the occasional selfie taken with him, he seems to favour wearing comfortable leisurewear: shell suits, padded jackets and baseball caps. All perfectly normal, and well suited for a man in deservedly gentle retirement.

But – and here’s where the Great Church Scandal of Our Age really kicks in – these clothes are white; white enough, in fact, to have featured in a 1980s Daz advert. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he is typically referred to as the Pope Emeritus.

This horrifying combination, I am reliably informed, can reap naught but scandal and confusion. It was a terrible, terrible error, made in haste. Worse, it is regrettably too late to rectify now, this time around. But the Church must – simply absolutely must – change canon law to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again, per secula seculorum, Amen.

This is nonsense, and for several reasons.

First, while the phenomenon of retired popes isn’t something we’re exactly used to, it’s hardly without partial (and instructive) precedents. The 1983 Code of Canon Law specifies that “A bishop whose resignation from office has been accepted retains the title of emeritus of his diocese”. The title of “Bishop Emeritus of X” is a relatively new one – as, indeed, is the norm of bishops retiring at all. (Before Vatican II, bishops tended to remain in post until death. If they were moved for some reason, they would normally be assigned a titular see to be bishop of.)

I dare say that when this innovation was introduced it was greeted with a great deal of concern: would it not confuse the faithful? Would a bishop emeritus hanging around a diocese undermine the authority of the new incumbent? I think it’s fair to say that neither (imagined, though plausible enough) fear has been realised.

Ah, but that’s precisely the problem, my (admittedly somewhat caricatured) detractor may say. For Benedict is not styled as “Bishop Emeritus of Rome” at all. That wouldn’t be a problem. “Pope Emeritus”, however, is a Tiber-muddying novelty too far.

This brings me to my next point. The pope is the Bishop of Rome, and the Bishop of Rome is the pope. “Pope” is simply the shorthand nickname – and an affectionate one (derived from papa) – that the Bishop of Rome has, more or less universally, come to be called. In the early Church, and indeed in several non-Catholic Churches today, “pope/papa” was used as an honorific for the incumbent of several venerable sees. Indeed, in the 3rd century, letters from even the Roman clergy to St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, address him as “Pope Cyprian”.

If we normally referred to the successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome, it would likewise be normal to refer to retirees from that role as bishops emeritus. But we don’t. We call him the Pope, hence “Pope Emeritus”. As with bishops emeritus, no one – or rather no one sensible – should find this nomenclature remotely confusing.

Finally, there is ample precedent for the (arch)bishops of sees to which special titles have been historically attached retaining those titles and modes of dress in retirement. The title of “patriarch emeritus” is well established both in the Latin Rite – Jerusalem currently has two patriarchs emeritus – and several Eastern Catholic Churches. And while I could be wrong, I strongly suspect that any special patriarchal apparel, liturgical or otherwise, would likely also to be retained by those now “spending more time with their golf clubs”.

Retired popes might be new, and Benedict may well prove to be a trendsetter in this regard. But calling him Pope Emeritus, and his continuing to wear white, were perfectly sensible decisions, and wholly in accord with current practice.

Stephen Bullivant is professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the October 6 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here