Two men in white – one the reigning pope and the other a retired – each show the other the homage owed to a papacy and discuss the future of the Catholic Church as they move from one papacy to the next.
But for some, that moment on Castel Gandolfo’s helipad summed up everything wrong with Benedict’s surprise resignation and the risks it poses to the unity of the Catholic Church and the papal institution.
For these critics, Benedict’s decision to retire at 85 rather than die in the job created the specter of two leaders of the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church, and the old pope remains a point of reference for traditionalists who oppose and reject the new pope. to recognize its legitimacy.
For a church that prided itself on unity, believed in the unique primacy of the pope, and viewed the priest as the divinely inspired successor of the Apostle Peter, any confusion as to who was really responsible was no small thing.
“Such situations can lead to a split,” warned German Cardinal Walter Brandmueller, shortly after the meeting in March.
From his chosen title (retired pope) to his robes (white) and his occasional public comments (about sexual harassment and priestly celibacy), Benedict’s post-retirement decisions sparked calls for the Vatican to develop rules and regulations to guide future popes. who can follow in his footsteps and give up.
Even Francis weighed in by saying future adjustments would be needed in the decade of Benedict’s experiment. In Benedict’s case, things had gone well enough, as Francis was “a saintly and prudent man.”
For the record, the Jesuit pope said that if he retires, he will be known as the “honorary bishop of Rome” and not as an “honorary pope” and will live somewhere in Rome, not the Vatican or his native Argentina.
However, Francis was unable to establish any protocol governing a future retired pope while Benedict was still alive, creating a long-term situation of uncertainty and unrest about the status quo that particularly angered Benedict’s staunchest supporters.
“I hope we don’t have a retired pope, but canon law need to develop a set of protocols if it is to continue,” said Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was an ardent supporter of Benedict and still opposed his decision to resign.
“Church unity can never be underestimated as it becomes more and more evident,” Pell said in an interview in 2021, noting the nostalgia for Benedict’s doctrinal pope among some traditionalists.
“I deeply agree with almost everything Pope Benedict has said and written. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for retired popes to lecture, write or comment. I don’t think it’s appropriate for a retired pope to wear white,” he said.
And Pell said he doesn’t think a retired pope should be referred to as a “retired pope,” but should instead go back to his birth name and take his place as a retired member of the Cardinals College.
Yet it was Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, Benedict’s long-time secretary, who strongly defended Benedict’s decisions and refused to back down even after some issues arose.
Speaking at a book launch in 2016, Gaenswein agreed that there are no “two popes”. But he said what Benedict was doing by resigning was to create an “extended” papal ministry “with an active and thoughtful member”.
According to the audio recording of his remarks on Vatican Radio, Gaenswein said, “For this reason, Benedict has not given up either his name or his white robe, and so the correct way to address him is still ‘His Holiness.” . “Besides, he did not retreat into a deserted monastery, but retreated into the Vatican, as if he had stepped aside to open a new chapter in his successor and papal history.”
Such a thesis was firmly rejected even by Benedict’s most enthusiastic defenders.
And remember, long before “The Two Popes” aired on Netflix in 2019, Dante warned of threats to the church when he attacked the “cowardice” of a resigning pope in “Divine Comedy.” Dante is believed to be referring to the reclusive pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294 and was responsible for what Dante called the “great refusal”. Yet it was precisely where Benedict prayed over Celestine’s grave in 2009 in a gesture that is widely accepted as laying the foundation for his own retirement.
German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who replaced former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal department, said that being an “honorary pope” had no legal or theological basis, and that the title was apocryphal and extremely problematic.
In an interview in 2021, Mueller said that applying the title “retired” for retired bishops to the pope was wrong because the pope was not just any bishop or even “first among equals”, but rather the Earthly Vicar of Jesus.
“It’s just an honorary title. “It doesn’t exist as an element of the church’s divine nature,” Mueller told the Associated Press. “It is better to avoid this title.”
Many observers, including Reverend Gianfranco Ghirlanda, one of the Vatican’s top jurists, said the title “honorary bishop of Rome” would be more appropriate to make it clear that any retired pope no longer has any claim to the papacy. .
In doing so, Ghirlanda wrote in an article in the Jesuit journal “La Civilta Cattolica” in early 2013 that he would follow the praxis of “all other diocesan bishops” who were dismissed after his resignation.
Additionally, while Benedict largely kept his promise to live “in hiding from the world” in retirement, he spoke occasionally, and these moments were also cause for concern.
The most clamorous came in 2020 when Benedict co-wrote a book reaffirming the “necessity” of a celibate priesthood.
There was nothing new about its location. The book came out, however, when Francis was debating whether to bless married men due to the shortage of priests in the Amazon.
The implications of Benedict’s intervention were serious and raised the specter of a parallel magisterium or formal church teaching at a time when the church was already polarizing between conservatives who longed for Benedict’s orthodoxy and progressives who applauded Francis’s benevolent disposition.
Reverend Jean-Francois Chiron, a theologian at the University of Lyon, wrote in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, “It is another thing to publish a book about Jesus as an ordinary citizen, as Benedict did before he resigned.” “It’s one thing to take sides on the important, current issues facing the universal church.”
Eventually, Benedict stepped down from publication and requested that he be removed from being the co-author of “From the Depth of Our Hearts.” But the damage was done.
Francis fired Gaenswein, Benedict’s long-time secretary, from his second job as head of the papal family.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the book’s lead author and critic of Francis, struck a blow to his reputation for seemingly manipulating Benedict in a way that hurt both popes.
Critics noted that retired bishops at least have official Vatican guidelines that they must follow, and said there should be similar guidelines for future retired popes.
These guidelines are as follows: “The honorary bishop shall take care not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, with the administration of the diocese. He will want to avoid any attitudes and relationships that might indicate an authority parallel to that of the diocesan bishop and that could have detrimental consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the episcopal community.”
Benedict’s longtime spokesman said that while he did allow some protocols to be developed for future popes, there were few issues that arose during his longer-than-expected retirement.
“Everything went extremely well in my opinion,” said Father Federico Lombardi. “If you think about how many times certain problems happened or what they were, I remember three or four.”
He said it was clear that Francis and Benedict had an “excellent” relationship, and that the retired pope’s presence in the Vatican Gardens was “felt as the prudent presence of someone who loved and continues to love the church.” and pray for him.”
If some people chose to use Benedict for their own ideological ends, or if they chose to magnify their criticism of Francis, that was their problem, Lombardi said.
“Even if Benedict had died, they could have said the same thing,” he said.