At the 2016 Pontida meeting, the annual coven of the far-right League, the Italian Matteo Salvini, when he had not yet accessed government positions, agreed to pose, smiling, with a T-shirt that had a clear message: "Il mio papa è Benedetto”. My dad is Benedict.
Benedict XVI promised to hide from the world and not overshadow the work of his successor when he resigned from the pontificate in February 2013. Then a question arose that would forever change the life of the modern Church. Nobody knew what the coexistence of an active Pope, Francis, and a retired one, Benedict, would be like. Instead of moving back to Germany, he chose to live a life away from the spotlight in the Mater Ecclesiae residence, a monastery in the Vatican gardens. The residence was previously a convent for cloistered nuns that John Paul II had built in 1992, and until now it was the retired pope's headquarters, from where he received visits, wrote, read books, and, before losing strength, encouraged himself with the piano.
Benedict's choice to resign and remain in the Holy See was unprecedented. The last pope to abdicate was Gregory XII, and he did so almost 600 years ago. The role that he had to maintain in his retirement posed a very delicate question that accompanied the emeritus pope during the last years of his life.
The first big decision he made, the title he got, was already controversial. When he stepped back, some theologians suggested that he should proclaim himself "bishop emeritus of Rome" to make it clear that there was only one pope. Instead, even before the conclave that elected the first Latin American pope, the German announced that he was going to call himself "pope emeritus" and that he would continue responding to the name of Benedict XVI and not to Joseph Ratzinger, an option that aroused various criticisms. Italian Archbishop Rino Fischella, a highly respected theologian and president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, assured that despite respecting the option "he raised more theological problems than solved them." In an interview this summer, Francis has already advanced that if he resigns in the future, he would stay on as "bishop emeritus of Rome."
During his years in the pontificate and also before that, as prefect of John Paul II's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Inquisition), Benedict gained great influence over traditionalists in the Vatican. When he resigned, he continued to have that influence - even involuntarily - especially over those who were enraged by the Argentine pope's desire to reform the Curia. The emeritus respected his vow of silence for the most part, especially the first few years after his resignation. His public appearances could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But, although he was not seen, he was undoubtedly heard, especially in a setting as prone to intrigue, rumors and rivalries as the Holy See. Some very specific interviews, articles or publications, especially in the final years, reopened the debate on his role in the Vatican and also gave wings to Francis' opposition, which ranges from the traditionalists in the Vatican to the battering rams of the extreme right. such as Steve Bannon, former adviser to Donald Trump. Many ultra-conservatives in the Church, and also far-right populists such as Salvini, resorted to and exploited the figure of Benedict to show his disagreement with the Jesuit ideology considered more progressive in cases, for example, such as the reception of migrants and refugees.
There have been moments of notable media storms. This was the case, for example, of the letter that he wrote in April 2019 in the Bavarian publication Klerusblatt. Among other things, there he located the origin of sexual abuse in the 1968 revolution and in a mistaken interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, at a very delicate moment for Francis' pontificate, when he had just left the historic summit against abuse in February. of that year. There were rumors that Benedict was manipulated into writing the letter, but his long-time personal secretary, Georg Gänswein, confirmed that it was his work alone.
The thorniest issue was when the ultra-conservative Cardinal Robert Sarah published a book called From the depths of our hearts, which at first he posed as being written four hands with Benedict. It caused a huge stir because in the book both directly pressured the Pope not to contemplate the possibility of ordaining married men in the most remote areas of the Amazon, something that would call celibacy into question. The case – which took the name of librogate – ended with the embarrassing disavowal of Sarah, forced to withdraw Benedict XVI's signature from his book by the intervention of Gänswein himself.
From the Vatican they always made an effort to emphasize the good relationship that existed between the two popes, as well as that their visions of the Church were not disparate and contradictory but complementary. Francis has also insisted that it was "like having a wise grandfather at home". According to the Vatican workers, they saw each other on many more occasions than they made public. lead to confusion, but the Argentine never wanted to intervene to regulate the role of pope emeritus because of his respect for the figure of Benedict. It is known that their relationship was always excellent and based on respect, and on several occasions Bergoglio praised his courage when it was time to resign and said he would have no problem following his example.Perhaps now, after his death, it will be time to consider how to deal with the issue of an emeritus in the future.