The worldwide storm in reaction to news that the French publisher Fayard was releasing a book written by “four hands” — those of the Pope Emeritus and Cardinal Robert Sarah — was provoked not just by its content (confirming that celibacy was a mandatory condition for the priesthood) so much as by the way the anti-Francis Church media sought to make use of it. For years they have been looking for any means to counterpose the figure of Benedict XVI to the reigning Pope, dreaming of dividing the worldwide Church in order to delegitimize Francis and force him to resign. In their fury they care nothing about causing tragedy, disorientation or scandal. They sow division, foster suspicions, and spread accusations of heresy.

This is a religious pathology running through the Church, whose primary victims are the simple faithful who are often unwittingly involved in the dark plots of powerful people who manipulate from behind a veil of feigned religious zeal.  The global right has no love for the Argentine, Latin American Pope. They think him too left-wing on social issues, and therefore of no use to the centers of power that are patently transforming the current reality.

To delegitimize a Pope, however, it is not enough to attack him on political grounds. You have to sow doubt — doubt on religious grounds — and this is where theological diatribes and pressure groups come into play, together with media operators who obsessively accuse him of heresy, time and again. For them, a social progressive must also be progressive and modernist on doctrinal grounds. Which is how the legend is born: the feel-good pope is a creature of George Soros, something akin to Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World living in the Vatican, whose hidden purpose is the dissolution of the Church from the inside.

Apocalyptic delusions and mystical prophecies come together in an imagined scenario in which Church and world are headed for the end. Apocalyptic prophecies are the flipside of a dark world that arrogantly demands order and security, and which is left disoriented and irate-faced with a pope who urges people to tear down the barriers and not be afraid.

Thus does this anti-Church move against Bergoglio by constantly seeking out leaders in both the political and church worlds who can take on the role of the anti-Francis. From Trump to Putin, from Orbán to Salvini, to cardinals Burke, Müller, and Sarah, to Archbishop Viganò — it’s all a continual attempt to delegitimize the Pope’s operation. To the point where future historians will see Bergoglio’s pontificate as dotted with an uninterrupted series of attempts to remove him.

Their strategy of attrition would not have so much power if they had not, for years, tried to involve–in vain–the figure of Benedict XVI. For one group of conservative Catholics, the grand resignation of Benedict was unforgivable. As the Cardinal of Krakow, Stanisław Dziwisz, said angrily, “You do not come down from the cross.” That world has never forgiven Benedict for his decision.

But not all. Some believe that that the pope emeritus, by breaking his silence or working behind the scenes, can stem the “modernist” tide of the “official” Pope. It is in this context that Ratzinger’s decision to collaborate on this book with Cardinal Sarah—notoriously regarded as not being exactly in tune with Francis—has taken on a special significance. This certainly wasn’t the intention of Benedict, who has explicitly written that he defers entirely to the authority of his successor; but it has been the effect. Nor was it the intention of Abp. Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s secretary, according to whom there had been no official editorial agreement between Benedict and the cardinal, and that From the Depths of Our Hearts was Sarah’s project. His statement was useful in helping to clarify and introduce some sense into the discussion.

But having disrupted their plans, Abp. Gänswein incurred the wrath of those who, until the day before, had praised him as a pillar of their strategy. As Abp. Viganò thundered from the pages of La Verità (a newspaper of the political right), “Father Georg has isolated the Pope Emeritus” (Jan. 16, 2020). The anti-Francis brigade has no scruples: when their pawns are no longer useful, they must be replaced. “It is time to reveal the abusive and systematic control exercised by Monsignor Georg Gänswein against the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI from the beginning of his Pontificate,” Viganò announced, adding: “Gänswein routinely filtered information, claiming the right to judge for himself how much, if any, should be sent to the Holy Father.”

In this way, the endless war grinds up its victims and continues. And if the combatants get lost on the way or are sacrificed in battle, the general remains: the unsuspecting Benedict, who certainly does not intend to oppose Francis or to serve as a pawn for the anti-Church. Anyone who believes he does disowns the entire theological corpus of Joseph Ratzinger as well as his understanding of the papacy. Those who recite the slogan “Benedict is our Pope” demonstrate an understanding of ecclesiology that Benedict absolutely abhors; one that is outside of his concept of “Catholicism.” His declarations of fidelity and obedience to Pope Francis cannot reasonably be called into doubt by any of the books of theological fantasy that so excite the latter-day doom-mongers.

That said, the fact remains that Benedict’s decision to participate in Cardinal Sarah’s initiative remains questionable, despite good intentions. It’s questionable not because he has no right to speak or to publish, but because of the title he decided to take at the time of his abdication: “pope emeritus.” This title is unprecedented in the entire history of the Church, and eminent scholars, such as the Jesuit Gianfranco Girlanda in his “Cessation of the office of Roman pontiff” (La Civiltà Cattolica, March 2, 2013), have raised serious doubts about its validity.

It is this title, which canon law does not know how to regulate, that has offered the possibility for fantasies and palace maneuvers. If it had been “Cardinal Ratzinger” who had weighed in on the subject of priestly celibacy, following the Synod of bishops but prior to the current pope’s final decision, his intervention, despite all his influence, would not have created the problem we are now discussing.

The debates become heated when they are presented as a dispute between “two popes.” It is in this presumed dialectic — between the emeritus and the ruler — that the anti-Francis front inserts itself. We are therefore faced with the impasse that marks the present, dramatic moment of the Church. If Ratzinger wants to be true to the commitment he made when he decided to keep the name of Benedict XVI, pope emeritus, then he should observe the rule of silence in the matters that are the subject of discussion by the bishops and pope. He should only intervene if his words are in support of papal action. Where there is any doubt, he should offer his authoritative and valuable observations, in a personal and direct form, to the Pope who can judge whether they are useful or not. To do otherwise–to allow the possibility of publicly expressing his opinion on sensitive issues in the Church—is a betrayal of the white habit and the name of Pope emeritus.

We are now faced with a situation that would probably not even exist were it not for the friendship and esteem that bind the two popes, past and present, in a one-off in the history of the Church. Francis accepted Benedict’s decisions about his role without raising objections. The two men have different approaches, have made different choices, but are united by the same love for the Church–the Church of the Council—and have the same missionary perspective. This is why Benedict is also disliked by many traditionalists. If there is a problem of communication today regarding Benedict’s publications, it is not due to either of the two main protagonists, but because of the militant opposition of a minority within the Church that tries, every time, to exploit the words of the pope emeritus in order to discredit the authority of the pope. This is why discretion is necessary from Benedict, a discretion which, in normal times, could be taken for granted.


This is a WPI translation of the original essay, published in Italian by Il Sussidiario. Used with permission.

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) Pope Francis via photopin (license)

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Massimo Borghesi is professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia. He is the author of several books, including volumes on Augusto del Noce, Luigi Giussani, and political theology. More recently, he is the author of The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.

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