From February 11, 2013 — the day Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation — to the present, disparate claims and theories about the thoughts and opinions of the former pontiff have been ever-present. The speculation began with theories about Benedict’s resignation, such as the idea that he was pressured by curial adversaries to renounce the papacy. It continues after his death, indicated by this week’s announcement that his longtime assistant, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, plans to publish a tell-all book about his time at Benedict’s side.
Indeed, there has scarcely been a moment in the past decade when Catholic pundits haven’t circulated rumors about what the pope emeritus was doing and saying in private – whether it was about the two popes not being on speaking terms, whether Benedict was privately disappointed by some of Francis’s decisions, or whether Francis made appointments based on Benedict’s recommendations.
Early in Francis’s pontificate, certain appointments, such as tapping Cardinal Robert Sarah as head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, were held up as examples that Francis was upholding the legacy of his predecessor. Others, such as the removal of Cardinal Raymond Burke as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, were explained away as ordinary administrative moves.
Things began to change around the time of the Synods on the Family, with talks of a “fixed” synod from the pope’s critics. A popular rumor circulated by Francis’s supporters told of a group of disgruntled cardinals who met with Benedict during the family synod to complain and he told them to get lost and obey the pope.
Benedict’s post-retirement role as a papal confidant, ceremonial figure, media foil, and source of endless speculation wasn’t pre-planned. Days after he announced his plans to retire, he stated that his plan was to remain “hidden from the world” for the rest of his life. On the final day of his pontificate, in his final address as pope to the College of Cardinals, Benedict pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his yet-unknown successor.
It seems that it was Pope Francis who encouraged Benedict to continue to have an active and present role. In a 2014 interview, Francis spoke against the idea of hiding his predecessor away from public view. “The Pope emeritus is not a statue in a museum,” he said, adding that he and Benedict had discussed the question, and mutually decided “that it would be better that he sees people, gets out and participates in the life of the Church.” The fruit of this decision was a handful of public appearances in St. Peter’s, the occasional publication of new letters and documents from the pope emeritus, a few interviews, and a traditional drop in visit by Pope Francis with a batch of new cardinals following every consistory.
The pope emeritus also welcomed a steady stream of visitors for photo-ops and continued to privately correspond with others. And on occasion his private correspondence became public. Many of those with whom he was in contact were known to have difficulties with his successor – the embattled Cardinals Sarah and Burke; Msgr. Livio Melina, who had just been dismissed as president of the St. John Paul II Institute; former papal biographer George Weigel; Kazakh Bishop Athanasius Schneider. Each, seemingly, came away reassured that they had the support and agreement of the former pope, despite being at odds with the current one.
One of the rumors that has long circulated was that Archbishop Gänswein acted as a strict gatekeeper, preventing many people from seeing Benedict, including his fellow German, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who knew Benedict for 60 years but was supposedly unable to secure a meeting with him during his retirement.
Rumors perked up whenever controversies exploded. Some websites claimed that Benedict and Francis weren’t on speaking terms at certain points. The official story is that Benedict and Francis maintained a weekly telephone call, and there’s no concrete reason to doubt it. What they’ve discussed will never be known, however. It is also known that Benedict has written directly and confidentially to Francis in response to some of his teachings. Benedict’s gatekeeper Gänswein made it clear that Benedict would not be weighing in publicly on the pivotal controversy of Francis’s papacy, Amoris Laetitia, leaving both critics and supporters of Pope Francis with uncertainty about the support of his predecessor.
We must conclude that much of this ambiguity was intentional. For much of the last decade, both “sides” in the divided Church had the impression that (at least on some issues) Benedict could just “fix it.” Francis’s critics wished he would weigh in strongly in support of the “resistance” to the pope, perhaps by condemning Amoris Laetitia. Papal supporters hoped at some point he would publicly express clear support for the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff. But he never did. Instead, we are left with nothing but clues, innuendo, and rumors – as well as the official line – on what Benedict really thought about his successor.
That is, of course, if we choose to dwell on it. In the end, the opinions of a retired pope aren’t terribly relevant in the greater scheme of things – certainly not as relevant as the opinions and decisions of his successor. The public record, as Catholic writer Greg Daly has demonstrated, paints a portrait of a generally supportive and respectful pope emeritus, even if the finer details aren’t terribly clear.
I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to assume that Benedict probably wasn’t a huge fan of many of Pope Francis’s decisions. This is human nature. Not a single Catholic doesn’t think a pope should handle at least some situations differently (“Why won’t he excommunicate that guy?”). It’s certainly possible that he was shocked by Traditionis Custodes, as traditionalist media claims. He was likely unhappy with some of the people Francis promoted and demoted. Given their obvious differences in personality and liturgical views, there are probably many more examples. That said, whatever misgivings Benedict may have had about Francis’s prudential, pastoral, personal, and administrative decisions, he went to great pains to keep them private. And whenever he was dragged into such controversies, he fought to drag himself out.
Across his tenure as Pope Emeritus, Benedict remained an elusive figure. Perhaps he wanted it that way. It’s been reported that at the time of his retirement, Benedict thought he only had a few more months to live. Casual observers noted his frailty and evident fatigue at the time of his retirement, and that he was looking much better a year or two later. Very few expected that he would be blessed with nearly a decade of life after stepping down.
Rather than fading away, Benedict remained a looming shadow. Due to the strange developments and divisions in the Church, he became an enigmatic figure in an ecclesial war he never envisioned. We are certain to encounter more of these murky narratives about him for some time to come. But we don’t need to engage them. Pray for his soul. Give him his peace. We must come to terms with the idea that certain truths will likely never be known this side of heaven.
Image: Screenshot from Benedict XVI’s meeting with new cardinals in August 2022, Vatican Media.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.