One of the most tragic Church facts from the last decade is how one of the leading intellectuals of our time has been buried under an avalanche of controversy and misrepresentation, to the point of almost suffocating his message and ideas. I’m talking, of course, of Pope Benedict XVI.
As someone who has read and enjoyed Pope Benedict’s writings for years, it is easy for me to understand this simple truth: Joseph Ratzinger is too complex an intellectual to fit neatly into an ideological box. Unfortunately, most people nowadays don’t seem to be able to reason outside those neat ideological boxes, so if someone doesn’t fit, he must be forcefully hammered into one.
That’s what has been done with Pope Benedict. Since very early on after his election, the media have taken pains to hammer him into one of those neat ideological boxes, so as to better sell his image to an audience of consumers. He was almost immediately identified with the “Cardinal Panzer” who lorded over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Inquisition’s successor. They dug up his past and found a way to tie him to the Nazi Youth, ignoring how he was dragged into it against his will. The out-of-context quoting from the Regensburg address sealed the deal: Pope Benedict XVI was now to be viewed as an ultraconservative right-wing radtrad, bent into keeping the Church in medieval obscurantism.
It didn’t matter that Pope Benedict issued social encyclicals with proposals that would fall on the left side of the political spectrum: the “right-wing” stamp was already on his forehead. It didn’t matter that the Second Vatican Council was also the offspring of Joseph Ratzinger’s important contributions. No, the “radtrad” label had stuck and couldn’t be taken out.
Unfortunately, Catholics are not immune to this kind of labeling. If the media and progressives viewed Benedict XVI as the enemy, then that must mean (so they reasoned) that he really is a right-wing traditionalist. If he is a right-wing traditionalist (so they reasoned again) then he is one of the “good guys”.
The tables were then turned when, on an almost unprecedented move, Benedict resigned. Shortly after, a new successor was appointed to the Chair of St. Peter. And that successor would soon be placed by the media *and* by ideologically-driven Catholics into the opposite box as Benedict.
Since Pope Francis was labeled as a progressive, then he was one of the “bad guys”. But Pope Francis had legitimate papal authority. A faithful Catholic should heed his teachings. So, how to reconcile this cognitive dissonance?
One of the ways they did so was to try to invalidate Benedict’s resignation. If his resignation was invalid, then Francis’ election was invalid as well… and they wouldn’t need to assent to his authoritative teachings with which they disagreed.
Soon, conspiracy theories began to emerge which claimed Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was not free, but forced upon him by obscure forces bent into destroying the doctrine of the Church so as to promote a liberal progressive agenda.
Usually, when someone challenges these conspiracy theorists, their usual response is “How do you know that Pope Benedict wasn’t forced to resign?” Notice the inversion of the burden of proof there: if they are asserting Benedict resigned under duress, they should be the ones providing proof for their claims. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. Innuendo and biased sources with lots of flawed arguments seem to count as “proof” for them.
I know facts usually don’t sway conspiracy theorists… but I think the question “How do you know that Pope Benedict wasn’t forced to resign?” can be answered to a reasonable person’s satisfaction. And it can be done using Pope Benedict’s (or his close aides’) words and actions. Let’s review them, shall we?
First of all, there’s Benedict’s own resignation speech. On Feb 10th 2013 he took the world by surprise by being the first pope in centuries to voluntarily resign. Here is the official English translation of the speech he delivered at that time:
“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. 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”
Please note: “full freedom”. Pope Benedict is telling us he was not coerced. Of course, for a conspiracy theorist, this will reinforce his views: “That’s what a coerced person would be forced to say”. Well, it’s also what a non coerced person would say in a situation that could elicit unwanted suspicions, so as to dispel them.
The reasons invoked by the pontiff for his resignation were health related. From that time on, he would never hint at any other motives for his resignation. And anyone who has seen him recently can ascertain how visibly frail his health is.
On Feb 24th, Pope Benedict delivered his final Angelus blessing. There was a huge crowd in St. Peter’s Square to hear him. If he was being coerced, this would be the perfect time to unmask the conspiracy. Instead, he said this:
““The Christian life”, I wrote in my Message for this Lent, “consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love” (n. 3). Dear brothers and sisters, I hear this word of God as addressed to me in particular at this moment of my life. Thank you! The Lord is calling me “to scale the mountain”, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church; indeed, if God asks me this it is precisely so that I may continue to serve her with the same dedication and the same love with which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suited to my age and strength.”
Again, he is consistent in invoking age related loss of strength for his resignation. He also says he will not abandon the Church, so if he ever fell the Church was in trouble, he would surely have acted. More importantly, he reinforces that his decision was a matter of discernment: Benedict truly believes his resignation was an act of following God’s will.
On his last day as the reigning pope, Feb 28th, Benedict addressed the Council of Cardinals, saying:
“Among you, among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope, to whom today I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience”
Let’s emphasize the “unconditional” part. Certainly it was out of question for him that the next pope would do anything which would mandate disobedience from his part so as for him to be faithful to God.
Later, after Pope Francis’ election, Benedict would have called his successor on the phone and would have said, as testified by Monsignor Xuereb (a person of his personal inner circle) and reported by Aleteia: “Holiness, from this moment on, I promise you my total obedience and my prayers”.
This is not farfetched. Even in the secular world, it is common courtesy to call your successor and offer your collaboration for a smooth political transition. Of course, the papacy is more than a political post, so Benedict puts himself under the obedience every catholic owes to his pope… and he offers it to Francis.
And, until the day I write these words, he hasn’t broken these promises of total obedience. So we must reasonably assume they are still in full force.
On March 24th 2013, almost 10 days after the election of his successor, a clearly comfortable Benedict meets Pope Francis for the first time and agrees to publicly pray with him and to take some photo-ops with him. His reaction to Francis’ gift and words is clearly one of unfeigned joy.
Almost one year after his resignation, Pope Benedict once again quelled any suspicion by writing a letter to the Vatican Insider / La Stampa, answering some questions raised by the journalists in the context of the looming conspiracy theories surrounding his resignation. On that letter, the Pope Emeritus dismisses those claims as “simply absurd”:
“There is absolutely no doubt regarding the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry (…) The only condition for the validity of my resignation is the complete freedom of my decision. Speculations regarding its validity are simply absurd”
Later, on Christmas that year, Pope Benedict would again receive a visit from Pope Francis at his home and pray publicly with him:
Since his resignation, Pope Benedict has chosen to avoid the limelight. This is comprehensible, and not derived from any attempt to silence him, since Benedict knows that all his words would face great scrutiny and could be misconstrued as an “alternative Magisterium” which he obviously intends to avoid. He said from the beginning he would serve the Church through prayer and recollection and, unsurprisingly, that’s what he has been doing.
If he never again made any public announcement, then we should assume he remains faithful to his oath of loyalty to Pope Francis. In that case, it should prevail the Qui tacet consentire (i.e. “he who is silent, gives consent“). For, if Benedict felt that Francis was really the heretic the doomsday preachers say he is, driving the Catholic Church into widespread apostasy, he would surely have voiced his concerns and tried to do something about it. Since he hasn’t said anything about that topic, we must assume he agrees with Pope Francis.
Of course, the conspiracy theorist will counter that Benedict’s silence on the matter is because he is isolated and gagged on house arrest by those obscure forces which have labored to remove him.
But has Benedict been silent all these years? In the next part of this article, I shall prove he has not. And not only has he done public interventions, those interventions are in fact favorable to Pope Francis. I will publish another post shortly about this matter.
Photo credits: Osservatore Romano / Reuters (Pope Benedict greeting Pope Francis before the opening of the Holy Door at the Year of Mercy)
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.