Pope Francis dropped in again this week on his predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, wishing him happy birthday “with particular affection” in a now familiar showing of white-cloaked cordiality.
But behind the friendly visit, the talk of conspiracies and competing power centers is swirling inside the Vatican and far beyond. Just last week, Benedict, who turned 92 on Tuesday, released a 6,000-word letter holding forth on his views on the origins of the Roman Catholic Church’s clerical sex abuse crisis — effectively undercutting Francis on a contentious issue that has roiled his papacy.
For many church experts, the letter marked the most recent, and egregious, example of why having two popes — whose homes are separated by a few hundred meters but whose style, substance and visions of the church are vastly apart — can be so confusing to the faithful.
To be clear, Francis is the pope and is in charge. He is the one who can promulgate dogma and whose papal pronouncements when speaking “ex cathedra” — with the authority of the office —on questions of faith and morals are considered infallible. Benedict gave all that up — including the infallibility — when he stepped down.
“What is happening is what many of us hoped would not happen,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, who is supportive of Francis. “The idea of a double papacy is really, really disruptive.”
Indeed, instead of creating concrete remedies for the scourge of sex abuse in the church, the letter has once again made the Vatican, always a gossipy royal court given to intrigues, rife with fresh rumor of rivalry.
Specifically, speculation has mounted that Benedict has been used as a stalking horse by conservative ideological opponents of Francis, whose more pastoral, inclusive and less dogmatic approach to the pontificate they consider destructive.
There has also been debate over whether Francis’ lieutenants blocked Benedict’s letter from being submitted to the church leaders gathered for February’s unprecedented summit on clerical sex abuse.
When Benedict in 2013 became the first pontiff since Gregory XII in 1415 to resign, his vow to stay “hidden to the world” seemed a guarantee that he would keep to his refurbished Vatican convent and stay out of his successor’s way.
That has not always been the case, fulfilling what scholars and faithful feared would be a potentially nightmarish scenario for a modern church already torn by ideological divisions, and largely unprepared for the tempests of real-time communication in a social media age.
When Benedict quit, it was unclear what he would call himself. Since the pope is also the bishop of Rome, some theologians suggested and expected that he would call himself “Bishop emeritus of Rome” to help clarify that there was only one pope at a time.
But even before the conclave that would elect Francis, Benedict announced that he would take the title “Pope emeritus.” It was a choice that confounded his critics and even some of his supporters.
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, a respected Vatican theologian who advised Benedict and heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, which Benedict created, said in 2017 that he respected the former pontiff’s choice but would not use the title.
“Theologically, it poses more problems than it resolves,” he said.
Benedict’s letter is the most recent example. Intended as notes for February’s major summit on sex abuse, Benedict delivered what many theologians considered an embarrassing analysis of the crisis of pedophilia within the church, blaming it on the sexual freedoms of the swinging 1960s.
Francis instead has frequently attributed the crisis to clericalism, a systemic abuse of power and the unhealthy pursuit of authority within the church’s hierarchy.
Benedict, however, had argued in his letter that “all-out sexual freedom” prompted a “mental collapse” that he linked to “a propensity for violence.”
“That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes,” Benedict continued. “Because violence would break out among the small community of passengers.”
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime personal secretary, who is also the prefect of the papal household under Pope Francis, confirmed that Pope Benedict wrote the missive “absolutely on his own.”
Benedict retains vast influence, especially because he was the church’s dominant theologian for more than three decades, first as John Paul II’s doctrinal watchdog and then as pope. He has the full allegiance of the traditionalists that he championed.
Among some of those formed by his teachings and elevated by him through the church ranks, the words of Benedict carry more weight even than those of Francis, a Jesuit whose tendency to speak off the cuff and emphasis on pastoral inclusiveness over church doctrine infuriates them.
“Throughout his brief text, Ratzinger has moments of insight and genius that fall like rain in a desert, especially today,” wrote Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, a leading conservative who is often at odds with Francis. He added that in the face of so much moral erosion, “The good news is that some of our leaders still have the courage to speak the truth.”
Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, whom Benedict made the church’s doctrinal watchdog, and whom Francis later fired, has also heralded the letter as good sense.
“They have welcomed the message as the truth, meaning the other is lies,” said Mr. Faggioli. “There are some Catholics who think Pope Francis is so bad, they believe it is better to flirt with schism.”
The Vatican has responded by seeking to emphasize the continuity between the two popes. The editorial director of the Vatican’s communications department, a former top Vatican reporter, Andrea Tornielli, argued that the responses of the two popes to the sexual abuse scandal was essentially “the same proposal.” He said that the letter had set off a “lively debate.”
In recent years, Benedict mostly bit his tongue and said “let us pray” when egged on by his conservative allies, who complained to him during visits and wanted him to speak out against Francis.
In private letters he wrote in November 2017 to a German cardinal, one of the public opponents of Francis, Benedict essentially reprimanded the cardinal to knock it off for risk of devaluing his own entire papacy and having it “conflated with the sadness about the situation of the church today.”
But the letter on sex abuse marked a change. While Benedict got permission from Francis to write his letter, which he intended for a tiny journal for German priests, a right-wing Catholic media complex that is funded by critics of Francis and often works in concert was primed to amplify Benedict’s message.
The Catholic News Agency, which is owned by the United States-based Eternal World Television Network, a frequent theater for critics of Francis, posted a full and meticulous English translation of Benedict’s letter online in the early hours of April 10. Other conservative outlets were also provided the letter.
Sohrab Ahmari, a contributor to the conservative Catholic Herald, wrote on Twitter that he “broke this story worldwide” in the New York Post, where he is the op-ed editor. He declined to say how he got the letter.
Archbishop Gänswein declined to comment when asked if he provided the pope’s address to the conservative media, as many supporters of Francis suspect.
For many traditionalist and conservative Catholics, who believe Francis has sown confusion by drifting from orthodoxy, the mystery was not how the letter appeared in conservative outlets around the world all at once, but why it wasn’t submitted, as Benedict apparently intended, as a contribution to Francis’ extraordinary summit of church leaders to discuss abuse in February.
“Why wasn’t it given to the bishops at the summit,” said Marco Tosatti, a Vatican journalist who this summer helped the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, compose a letter that called for the resignation of Pope Francis. “That is the real question.”
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