Pope Francis visits his predecessor, retired Pope Benedict XVI, at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery at the Vatican, Dec. 21, 2018. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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? 

But the more important question was over the propriety of Benedict intervening at all.

But the more important question was over the propriety of Benedict intervening at all. He had promised Francis his “unconditional obedience and reverence,” and on the whole, these past six years, he has been loyal and supportive, while continuing to give theological reflections, as is his right. Naturally, Sarah’s supporters have stressed this right, claiming that both men are merely restating church teaching and echoing Francis’s own statements in defense of mandatory celibacy. Yet, to state the obvious, Benedict is not simply a theologian, and Sarah is not merely expressing a view. A quick glance at the book’s content makes clear the problem.

From the Depths of Our Hearts (Des Profondeurs de nos coeurs in French) has an explicitly campaigning purpose: to reject any possibility that in his forthcoming response to the synod Francis could agree to allow an exception to the celibacy rule in the Amazon or elsewhere. In excerpts carried by the French newspaper Le Figaro, Sarah is scathing about any kind of married clergy, describing it as a “half measure,” a “second-class” priesthood, one that would constitute “a breach, a wound in the coherence of the priesthood.” “The peoples of Amazonia have the right to a full experience of Christ the Bridegroom,” he argues, presumably because Amazonian deacons ordained as priests can only offer a stunted experience of Christ the Bridegroom. Then he calls on Francis—to whom he claims “filial obedience”—not to deprive people of “the fullness of the priesthood” and “the true meaning of the Eucharist.”

Sarah wants to close off the pope’s Amazon synod discernment by claiming that there is nothing to discern: a celibate priesthood is, in effect, divine law. The cardinal seeks to buttress this with the extravagant but unexplained notion of “an ontological-sacramental link between the priesthood and celibacy,” contradicting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (Presbyterorum ordinis, 16) that celibacy “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as in apparent from the practice of the early Church and the from the traditions of the Eastern Churches.” Indeed, his theologically innovative contention places in doubt not just the priesthood of the early popes but that of thousands of Catholic clergy today. Sarah goes on to claim, astonishingly, that any weakening (tout affaiblissement) of the celibacy rule would constitute an erosion of the teaching of the three previous popes, even though Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict all allowed exceptions. “I humbly appeal to Pope Francis to protect us definitively from any such eventuality by vetoing any weakening of the law of priestly celibacy, even if limited to a particular region,” Sarah urges, in the by now familiarly obsequious style of humbug made famous by the dubia cardinals.

What on earth is Benedict doing in theological company like this? The pope emeritus’s own contributions—which he had given to Sarah to use as he saw fit in the book—are a far cry from the cardinal’s: not just moderate, but rooted in traditional Catholic theology. He makes a strong case for celibacy as the best vehicle of the radical self-giving (along with material poverty) that priesthood entails, contending that Christian revelation has so transformed human understanding of the totality of God’s presence that both priesthood and marriage are whole-life vocations. But he stops short of Sarah’s wild claims, arguing only that it “would appear to be” difficult to combine both vocations at the same time, and that the ability to renounce marriage has become “a criterion for priestly ministry” (with that indefinite article, Benedict brakes well short of Sarah’s ontological claim). Benedict’s arguments are passionate, in short, yet traditional: his case is for priestly celibacy as a matter not of ontology but of convenience. He supports clerical celibacy because he believes it makes the priesthood easier to live out, not because the rule itself is mandated by God.

Folding Benedict’s gentle reflections into Sarah’s rant against married priests necessarily hitches the carriage of the elderly emeritus to the cardinal’s runaway train.

Yet folding Benedict’s gentle reflections into Sarah’s rant against married priests necessarily hitches the carriage of the elderly emeritus to the cardinal’s runaway train. If celibacy is coterminous with priesthood, where does that leave Benedict’s decision in 2009 to allow former Anglicans to petition “for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis”? Does Benedict now regard those clergy, in full communion with Rome, as defective, “second-class” priests? And what of the many Eastern rites of the Catholic Church—many formerly Orthodox churches—with a long tradition of a married priesthood? Sarah claims elsewhere in the book that, in light of the “ontological link” between celibacy and priesthood, Eastern-rite clergy are called to abandon marriage over time, and the concession to former “Protestant” priests should never be repeated. Are these also, by implication, Benedict’s views?

Francis is also passionately in favor of mandatory celibacy, pledging that he will never be the pope to end it. But like his predecessors he is willing to contemplate exceptions for compelling pastoral reasons, when the salus animarum—the good of souls—is at stake in remote mission places like the Amazon. But in his book Sarah claims there can be no “exceptions” to priestly celibacy, and even to use the word constitutes an “abuse of language or a lie.” Yet in 2009 Benedict cited St Paul VI’s 1967 Sacerdotalis caelibatus to support allowing former Anglican married clergy. Pope Paul had written that “a study may be allowed of the particular circumstances of married sacred ministers of Churches,” leading to “the admitting to priestly functions those who desire to adhere to the fullness of this communion.” The question now had to be asked: Did Benedict now agree with Sarah that these “exceptions” outlined by Paul VI were, in fact, a “lie”?

Hardly surprising, then, that in the course of Tuesday’s frantic rowing back Benedict’s office demanded the removal not just of any suggestion of his co-authorship but also his name from Sarah’s introduction and conclusion. But the damage has been done: Sarah has turned the ex-pope into a counter-magisterium, a rallying point for opposition to Francis. Now, if Francis were to decide against approving the synod’s call for an exception to celibacy for Amazonia, opponents will claim that “Benedict had stopped him.” They will hail a victory for “fidelity to tradition,” appearing to short-circuit a synodal process that is supposed to defer, ultimately, to the pope’s own discernment.

This and other previous fiascos—such as last year’s eccentric paper on sex abuse, which was promoted by Benedict’s court through the pro-Viganò media in the United States—has led many Catholics to call for the pope emeritus to do as he first promised and stay silent. It has also revived calls for the reform of the emeritus papacy, which canonists and theologians (including Massimo Faggioli of this parish) have long urged. In sum: he should be the bishop emeritus of Rome—as Francis correctly referred to his predecessor on the night of his election—not the “pope emeritus.” He should wear simple clericals, or a cardinal’s abito piano, not a white cassock. And there should be no office of the “prefect of the pontifical household” or any kind of parallel court. That way, if he does speak, he does so with the freedom of a private theologian. 

The way Benedict’s entourage has at times used him and his writings to undermine Francis is a scandal and a disgrace.

The way Benedict’s entourage has at times used him and his writings to undermine Francis is a scandal and a disgrace. They have fed scoops and exclusives to the opposition media while the Vatican and its press office are kept in the dark. They have consistently disobeyed the Vatican’s 2004 directory on bishops, which insists that emeriti should avoid “every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan Bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the diocesan community.” Only by deference to the diocesan bishop’s authority, adds Apostolorum successores, “all will understand clearly that the diocesan Bishop alone is the head of the diocese, responsible for its governance.” 

None of this will bother Francis much. He is deeply fond of Benedict, and shocked to see him, now that he is frail, preyed on in this way. For now he says nothing. Sarah’s schemes, like those of others before him, have a habit of imploding by themselves. But with each unseemly fiasco, Benedict’s star is unfairly tarnished. The lessons are being learned. The parallel court and the counter-magisterium will end with Benedict’s funeral. The incumbent pope must have the freedom to be pope, for the sake of the Petrine ministry itself. The people of God need to obey one pope at a time, because of the grace that attaches to the office, just as the emeritus must be free from intra-ecclesial squabbles and power plays that fuel division and confusion. Of course, all this can be designed and modeled by the next pope who stands down. If that turns out to be Francis, the makeover of the emeritus papacy will surely be his final great reform—one designed not to weaken the Petrine ministry but to defend it for the sake of the freedom of the people of God.

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

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