Vatican City: If ever there was a moment that embodied the surreal novelty created by the first papal resignation in 600 years, it came on the morning of March 23, 2013: Newly elected Pope Francis had travelled to the papal summer retreat south of Rome and was greeted on the helipad by the previous pope, Benedict XVI, who had moved there three weeks earlier.
Two men in white a reigning pope and a retired one each showing the other the deference owed to a pontiff and discussing the future of the Catholic Church as it passed from one papacy to the next.
But for some, that moment on the helipad of Castel Gandolfo encapsulated everything that was wrong with Benedict’s surprise resignation and the risks it posed to the very unity of the Catholic Church and the institution of the papacy.
For these critics, Benedict’s decision to retire at age 85 rather than die on the job created the spectre of two leaders of the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church, with the old pope remaining a point of reference for traditionalists who opposed the new pope and refused to recognise his legitimacy.
For a church that prides itself on unity, believes in the singular primacy of the pope and considers the pontiff the divinely inspired successor of the Apostle Peter, any confusion over who’s really in charge is not a small thing.
“Such situations could lead to a schism,” German Cardinal Walter Brandmueller warned soon after that March meeting.
Any confusion ended on Saturday, when Benedict died at his home in the Vatican Gardens at age 95. Francis will celebrate his funeral Mass on Thursday, creating a novelty for the church: that of a reigning pope eulogizing a retired one.
From the title he chose (pope emeritus) to the cassock he wore (white) to his occasional public comments (on sex abuse and priestly celibacy), Benedict’s post-retirement decisions sparked calls for the Vatican to develop rules and regulations to guide future popes who might follow in his footsteps and quit.
Even Francis weighed in, saying a decade into Benedict’s experiment that regulations would be needed in the future. Things had worked out well enough in Benedict’s case because he was “saintly and discreet,” Francis said.
The Jesuit pope, for the record, said that if he were to retire, he would be known as the “bishop emeritus of Rome,” not “pope emeritus” and would live somewhere in Rome, not the Vatican or his native Argentina.
But Francis couldn’t craft any protocols governing a future retired pope while Benedict was still alive, creating a situation of uncertainty and unease about the status quo that particularly riled Benedict’s firmest supporters. Now that Benedict has died, the Vatican might be in a better position to draft such regulations.
“I hope we don’t have any or many retired popes, but if it was to continue, church law needs to develop a set of protocols,” said Australian Cardinal George Pell, an ardent Benedict supporter who nevertheless opposed his decision to resign.
“As it has become more and more apparent, church unity can never be taken for granted,” Pell said in a 2021 interview, noting the nostalgia among some traditionalists for Benedict’s doctrinaire papacy.
“I deeply agree with nearly everything Pope Benedict has said and written. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for retired popes to be teaching, writing or commenting. I don’t think it’s appropriate for a retired pope to wear white,” he said.
And Pell said he didn’t think a retired pope should be called “pope emeritus,” but should rather return to his birth name and take up his place as a retired member of the College of Cardinals.
And yet, it was precisely Benedict’s own longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who strongly defended the decisions by Benedict and refused to back down even after some problems became apparent.
Speaking at a 2016 book launch, Gaenswein agreed there weren’t “two popes.” But he said what Benedict had done by resigning was to create an “enlarged” papal ministry “with an active and a contemplative member.”
“For this reason, Benedict didn’t renounce either his name or his white cassock, and for this reason the correct way to address him is still Your Holiness,'” Gaenswein said, according to an audio recording of his remarks on Vatican Radio.
“In addition, he didn’t retire to an isolated monastery, but inside the Vatican as if he had just stepped aside to make room for his successor and a new chapter of the history of the papacy.”
Such a thesis has been roundly rejected, even by Benedict’s most enthusiastic champions.
And lest anyone forget, long before “The Two Popes” came out on Netflix in 2019, Dante in his “Divine Comedy” warned of threats to the church when he assailed the “cowardice” of a pope who resigned.
Dante is believed to have been referring to Pope Celestine V, the hermit pope who quit in 1294 and was responsible for what Dante termed “the great refusal”. And yet it was precisely on Celestine’s tomb that Benedict prayed in 2009 in a gesture widely seen as having laid the groundwork for his own retirement.
German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who succeeded the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, said there was no legal or theological basis for a “pope emeritus” and said the title was made up and deeply problematical.
In a 2021 interview, Mueller said that applying the “emeritus” title used for retired bishops to the pope was misguided since the pope is not just any bishop or even the “first among equals,” but rather the Vicar of Christ on Earth.
“It’s only an honorary title. It doesn’t exist as an element of the divine constitution of the church,” Mueller told The Associated Press. “It is better to avoid this title.”
Many observers, including one of the Vatican’s top legal minds, the Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, said a more appropriate title would have been “bishop emeritus of Rome,” to make it perfectly clear that any retired pope no longer had any claim on the papacy.
Doing so, Ghirlanda wrote in an early 2013 essay in the Jesuit journal “La Civilta Cattolica,” would follow the praxis of “every other diocesan bishop” who ceases in his functions upon his resignation.
In addition, while Benedict largely held to his promise to live “hidden to the world” in retirement, he did speak out occasionally, and those moments too became a cause for concern.
The most clamorous one came in 2020, when Benedict co-wrote a book reaffirming the “necessity” of a celibate priesthood.
There was nothing novel with his position. But the book came out at the same time that Francis was weighing whether to ordain married men in the Amazon because of a shortage of priests there.
The implications of Benedict’s intervention were grave, raising the spectre of a parallel magisterium, or official church teaching, at a time when the church was already polarised between conservatives longing for Benedict’s orthodoxy and progressives cheering Francis’ merciful bent.
“It’s one thing to publish, as a private citizen, a book about Jesus as Benedict did before he resigned,” the Rev. Jean-Francois Chiron, a theologian at the University of Lyon, wrote in the French Catholic daily La Croix. “It’s another thing to take sides in important, current questions facing the universal church.”
In the end, Benedict distanced himself from the publication and asked to be removed as the co-author of the book, “From the Depths of Our Hearts.” But the damage was done.
Francis fired Gaenswein, Benedict’s longtime secretary, from his second job as head of the papal household.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the lead author of the book and a critic of Francis, suffered a reputational hit for having seemingly manipulated Benedict in a way that damaged both popes.
Critics noted that retired bishops at least have official Vatican guidelines to live by and said there should be similar guidelines for future retired popes.
Those guidelines read: “The bishop emeritus will be careful not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the diocese. He will want to 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 of and unity of the diocesan community.”
While allowing that some protocols might be developed for future popes, Benedict’s longtime spokesman said the problems that arose during his longer-than-expected retirement were few.
“From where I stand, it all went extremely well,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi. “If you think about how many times there were some problems, or what they were, I remember three or four.”
He said it was clear that Francis and Benedict enjoyed an “excellent” relationship and that the presence of the retired pope in the Vatican Gardens “was felt as the discreet presence of someone who had loved the church a lot, and who continued to love her and pray for her.”
Lombardi noted that if some people chose to exploit Benedict for their own ideological ends, or to amplify their criticism of Francis, that was their problem.
“Even if Benedict had died, they could have said the same thing,” he said.