One of the many ironies of the recent debacle over the role of the pope emeritus is that Benedict resigned precisely to avoid such indignities. Having lived through the chaos of St John Paul II’s final, infirm years—the runaway Curia, the corruption, the jostling—Benedict planned a retirement that was limelight-free, contemplative, and supportive of his successor. Yet it hasn’t turned out that way. Despite his best intentions, the emeritus papacy has proved a disorderly institution, one vulnerable to manipulation by critics of Benedict’s successor. The pope emeritus has been dragged yet again into an unseemly power play against Francis—this time by Cardinal Robert Sarah, seventy-four, the Vatican’s liturgy hardliner. The result has again been to besmirch Benedict, and to raise questions about his legacy and judgment.
Many wryly noted that on the same day Anthony Hopkins was nominated as best supporting actor for playing Joseph Ratzinger in the Netflix drama The Two Popes, the real, ninety-two-year-old Benedict was being drawn, in all his frailty, into a bid to stop Francis from agreeing to the Amazon synod’s call for ordaining married deacons. Sarah’s book, to be published soon in France and next month in the United States, was billed—dishonestly, it turned out—as having been co-authored by the pope emeritus. The cover even had his photo, and he was listed as the first author under his papal name, Benedict XVI. (Even when he was pope, he made sure to sign his Jesus trilogy “Benedict XVI-Joseph Ratzinger” to make clear these were his musings qua theologian.)
Benedict had agreed to none of this, contributing just a few pages of theology, trusting it would be helpful to Sarah’s endeavor. Sarah claimed Benedict had been consulted at every stage, while Benedict’s minder, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, insisted he had neither approved the manuscript nor agreed to be co-author. Sarah was eventually forced to back down. After issuing an angry statement promising to forgive those who had “calumnied” him, he agreed to Ganswein’s request to ask the French publisher to remove Benedict as coauthor. (The book’s U.S. publisher, Ignatius Press, has so far refused, saying that, as far as they are concerned, the book was co-authored.)
Some dust has settled, but it’s hard to know what really happened. Was Gänswein—who controls Benedict’s interactions with the outside world, and once argued bizarrely that there was now a twin papacy—genuinely appalled at what Sarah had done, or did he act only after being rebuked from the Vatican? Who (Gänswein or Sarah) was lying, or was there a misunderstanding that explains the discrepancy? Given Benedict’s frailty—he sleeps much of the day, has difficulty writing, and finds it hard to talk—had he been taken advantage of? If so, by whom—and why?