There was yet another hubbub a couple weeks back about the Third Secret of Fatima, one that involved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and claims that he did not reveal all of the secret -- claims that set Fatima devotees abuzz and forced the former pope himself to deny the assertions.

But that neverending topic overshadowed what I think was a much more important assertion regarding the former pope, namely that he is not quite a former pope but continues to serve in an "expanded" Petrine ministry alongside the actual pope, Francis.

Those claims, and numerous others, were made in a speech at the Gregorian University by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Benedict's longtime aide and confidante and increasingly the man responsible for speaking on behalf of the emeritus pontiff and promoting his legacy and, it seems, his ongoing authority.

As I wrote in a piece for Religion News Service over the weekend (forgive the detailed Fatima framing, which can be dispensed with), Ganswein argued:

... [T]hat the papacy “remains the foundation of the Catholic Church” but he said “the papal ministry is not the same as before.”

Benedict, he explained, “left the papal throne and yet, with the step he took on February 11, 2013, he has not abandoned this [papal] ministry.”

Ganswein said quitting in that sense would have been “quite impossible after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005” when the conclave of cardinals elected Benedict pope. Ganswein went on to say that Benedict intentionally “built a personal office with a collegial and synodal dimension, almost a communal ministry.”

Consequently, he said, there are “not two popes, but de facto an expanded ministry – with an active member and a contemplative member,” referring to Francis and Benedict. The emeritus pope “had taken only one step to the side to make room for his successor and a new stage in the history of the papacy.”

Gaswein went on to distance Benedict's action from that of the last pope to resign, Celestine V back in 1294, and he also defended Benedict's decision to keep his papal name and title and mode of address ("Your Holiness") and to live in the Vatican, as a successor of Peter must do, he argued.

Now there seem to be numerous problems with this thesis, some of which I, and others, pointed out ...

For one thing, Benedict himself said he kept the white cassock because he had nothing else to wear (yeah, I know...) and he wanted to be called simply "Father Benedict."

Others noted the many theological and ecclesiological problems here -- it's been the rare issue that has found agreement between our own Massimo Faggioli and the traditionalists at Rorate Caeli.

Those problems seem obvious to me, and others, but not to many of Benedict's fans, and therein lies the real problem, which is that intentionally or not, Ganswein is helping to make his boss a focal point of opposition to Francis -- an opposition that hardly needs much prodding.

Some have already been saying the current papacy should be viewed as a "diarchy" rather than a "monarchy" (a model I thought was dispensed with by Paul VI). To which many say simple, "Malarkey."

The final irony is that Ganswein also makes the claim that Benedict did the papacy and the Church a great good with his resignation because he "de-mythologizied the papacy."

I would agree, to an extent. A papal retirement is a very salutary thing, and this action by Benedict could be his chief legacy, and should be applauded without the liberal schadenfreude about a conservative pope being forced to step down etc. 

The problem, as I see it, is that by creating (ex nihilo and with no consultation) the office of "pope emeritus," and by keeping his name and white cassock and honorifics, Benedict undercut the effort to show that the office of the Bishop of Rome is an episcopal office that at its heart is like other such offices in the church.

And now Ganswein, by arguing that Benedict never really resigned, and that he remains a pope in some transformed and expanded papal ministry, is further undermining that "de-mythologization" because he is saying, basically, that once a pope, always a pope.

Here's a vote for a future pope -- perhaps Francis, though not as soon as some would like -- will retire with a black cassock and the title Bishop Emeritus of Rome, perhaps returning to their home country and their baptismal name.

PS: Aleteia has posted a complete translation of Ganswein's text.


David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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