VATICAN CITY — Two pontiffs, both wearing white, both called “pope” and living a few yards from one another, with the same key aide serving them.
The Vatican’s announcement Tuesday that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as “emeritus pope” in his retirement, be called “Your Holiness” and continue to wear the white cassock associated with the papacy has fueled concerns about potential conflicts arising from the peculiar reality now facing the Catholic Church: having one reigning and one retired pope.
There has been good reason why popes haven’t stepped down in past centuries, given the possibility for divided allegiances and even schism. But the Vatican insists that while the situation created by Benedict’s retirement is certainly unique, no major conflicts will arise.
Some Vatican-based cardinals have privately grumbled that it will make it more difficult for the next pope with Benedict still around.
Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, Benedict’s one-time colleague-turned-critic, went further: “With Benedict XVI, there is a risk of a shadow pope who has abdicated but can still indirectly exert influence,” he told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last week.
Adding to the concern is that Benedict’s trusted secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, will be serving both pontiffs — living with Benedict at the monastery being converted for him inside Vatican grounds while keeping his day job as prefect of the new pope’s household.
Kueng said it was a mistake for Gaenswein to serve both men and for Benedict to remain so close to the center of action.
“No priest likes it if his predecessor sits next to the rectory and watches everything he does,” Kueng was quoted as saying in Der Spiegel. “And even for the bishop of Rome, it is not pleasant if his predecessor constantly has an eye on him.”
Goodness gracious, people look for controversy just to create it.
A few points they may have overlooked, or simply failed to ask about in their rush to print:
1) The problematic papal positioning of the past happened back when the papacy was a major seat of temporal power. It, um, isn’t now, so a good portion of the allure is gone. Also those struggles happened because more than one guy claimed he was pope and stuck to that claim for a good long time. This pope is retiring. Not trying to hold onto power. Disappearing of his own free will. There cannot be any confusion about who is the real pope.
2) Relying on unnamed “some Vatican-based cardinals” and Hans Küng for insight on the implications of Benedict’s resignation is like relying on unnamed “high-level GOP staffers” and Chris Matthews for insight on power struggles within the Republican party. Really. Benedict (it is speculated) is retiring in part because he recognizes his own strength is not up to dealing with problems within the Vatican that have blown up and surprised him over the past year or two. The persons involved may be cardinals willing to talk to the American media. Just a hunch.
3) If the next pope decides he does not wish Archbishop Gaenswein to remain secretary he can end Gaenswein’s service in a moment’s notice. There is absolutely nothing preventing that move. Conflict ended.
4) Benedict isn’t exactly like any old former pastor, isn’t living in an apartment nearby, meeting with the old ladies of the parish every week for bingo, getting coffee with the old guys at McDonald’s in the morning, still accepting dinner invitations, and showing up at coffee and donuts after Mass on Sundays to talk about the “good old days.” Benedict, always a shy man who desired not to be in the spotlight at all, is, of his own free will, disappearing to a monastery inside the highly protected, very secluded Vatican City. If you’ve never been, the Vatican, with the exception of St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, is surrounded by a high stone wall, a fortress wall, with very limited access points. Benedict no doubt wants to live in a monastery there because it’s the only place he can be reasonably assured a little peace and quiet—something he has desired for decades but has been unable to find because of his duties at the Vatican since John Paul II made him head of the CDF.
In fact, the WaPo article, while misunderstanding what they are reporting, shares this bit:
Benedict himself has made clear he is retiring to a lifetime of prayer and meditation “hidden from the world.” However, he still will be very present in the tiny Vatican city-state, where his new home is right next door to the Vatican Radio transmission tower and has a lovely view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
By the simple fact that he will live there he will be “very present in the Vatican,” yes. Is it possible to be less than “very present” in the place where you are? But “right next door to the Vatican transmission tower” and having “a lovely view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica” do not equal, “setting up the Waldorf and Statler of papacies.” (Transmission towers aren’t exactly glamorous, he won’t have, or attempt to have, unfettered access to it, and a good bit of Rome has “a lovely view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.”)
Remember, that opening line means something, folks: “Benedict himself has made clear he is retiring to a lifetime of prayer and meditation ‘hidden from the world.’” For decades the man has been almost Horton-esque in his reliability: he means it, he says it; he says it, he means it. Why would he go the way of a certain former Democrat U.S. President now?The man did not want to be pope in the first place and is now retiring because he’s too tired and weakened to continue to carry the burden. It simply beggars belief that he would allow any ambiguity about who’s really in charge ’round here to emanate from him.
All in all, I should think the new pope would be overjoyed to have Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, one of the most brilliant minds of the last 50 years, sitting in a monastery just a few minutes’ walk away.
Sorry, WaPo, unnamed Vatican-based cardinals, and Hans Küng, but that’s not controversy you’re going to be able to sustain.