It is unlikely that during the tumultuous few day which have just passed in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI thought much about the linguistic ramifications of his decision to stand down. But an act unprecedented in modern times created a linguistic vacuum which had to be filled. And that chasm was the question of what to call a living Pope when he is no longer a Pope.
I don’t think this was really much of a concern when Gregory XII quit in 1415. There wasn’t a hungry news cycle or hordes of social networks crying out for an epithet with which to title the newly unemployed holy man. But in the 21st century, one of the key questions is what new title do you come up with for a role that nobody ever thought would need to be filled. So step forward Pope Emeritus.
It’s a really interesting example of a title that almost creates more problems than it solves. And it is simply the inclusion of the word ‘Pope’ that does it. The situation will surely be difficult enough for the next Pope to have to take over when his predecessor is still alive, and therefore in the eyes of some still in his role. So for him to still be called Pope, as well as the fact that he will be living close by, could simply make things harder.
Of course, the other issue is that the Vatican could be sued, with Oakland Rapper Pope Emeritus threatening action to protect the name he has performed under since 2006. I suspect the ecumenical issues will provide bigger concerns than the legal ones.
But job titles really are very important for how people cope with their roles. Even if the newly-named Pope Emeritus simply slips into the background and there are no problems at all, we can look elsewhere for confirmation. Chelsea’s interim manager Rafa Benitez proved it this week with his stupendous rant about everything, in particular his job title. Calling him ‘Interim Manager’ has clearly left him feeling angry and undermined, it has been a simple thing which he feels has profoundly affected his ability to do his job.
Of course drawing a connection between the Pope and a football manager is doing at least one of them a disservice, but to complete the analogy, just think about what might happen at Old Trafford when Sir Alex Ferguson finally calls it a day.
When Sir Matt Busby stepped down from the hot seat, his continued presence at the club made things difficult for his successors. When Sir Alex finally goes, his shadow will inevitably hang over the next man in the role. So imagine him sitting in the best seat in the ground while bearing the title ‘Manager Emeritus’. Think how difficult that would be for the new incumbent. Correct, very difficult. And that’s just how it might be for the new Pope.